The First Amendment Coalition has filed a CPRA suit against two government water agencies in the Palm Springs area to compel them to make public water usage data, by customer name, for each of their biggest corporate customers.
The agencies, Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency, have published this information in past years, with golf courses and country clubs dominating the lists of biggest water users. But this year, in the midst of one of the worst droughts in memory, the agencies decided that release of the same information would not be in the “public interest.”
A copy of FAC’s suit is posted below.
The water agencies claim that the records FAC requested are exempt from disclosure under section 6254.16 of the CPRA, which exempts release of “the name, credit history, utility usage data, home address, or telephone number of utility customers of local agencies . . .” unless the local agency determines “that the public interest in disclosure of the information clearly outweighs the public interest in nondisclosure.”
FAC contends that the section 6254.16 exemption applies only to residential customers, not corporate, commercial or other large institutional customers of water agencies. FAC also argues that the public interest clearly favors disclosure of the usage information, particularly during a severe drought.
“The notion that withholding the names of corporate water users is in the public interest because it protects privacy rights is. in a word, absurd,” said Peter Scheer, FAC executive director. “Residential customers may have legitimate privacy concerns, but not golf courses, particularly when their water use information has been released in past years,” Scheer said.
Both utilities’ biggest corporate customers consume water mainly by use of wells that pump water from underground. The utilities charge these customers a “replenishment assessment,” based on the amount of water pumped, to purchase water from other sources to replenish local groundwater.
“During a drought, the public interest in management of a scarce water resource is at its highest,” Scheer said. “Are the assessments high enough to incentivize conservation? To replace the groundwater that customers extract? Citizens can’t answer these questions, or have confidence in answers given by public officials, without access to the facts,” Scheer said.
FAC’s lawsuit was filed in Superior Court, Riverside, in Palm Springs. FAC’s lawyers are Jean-Paul Jassy and Kevin Vick of the Jassy Vick Carolan law firm in LA.
Jassy Vick Carolan