FAC-backed bill, AB 521, would require disclosure of water usage by corporations

The California Legislature will consider a FAC-backed bill to narrow the CPRA’s exemption for information on water usage by customers of government water districts. The bill, AB 1520, would reverse the outcome of an unsuccessful lawsuit filed by FAC against the Coachella Valley Water District in 2014.

The CPRA for nearly 20 years has had a special exemption, Gov Code section 6254.16, for public utilities, including water districts, allowing them to withhold “usage data” for for their “customers.” The exemption was enacted to protect customers’ privacy and personal security.

Two water utilities in the Palm Springs area, Coachella Valley Water District and Desert Valley Water District, had for years published annual reports listing their biggest water customers—mainly golf courses and resorts— and the volume of water they consumed. But in 2013, as California’s deepening drought was gaining public attention, the two utilities removed customers’ names from the reports.

After receiving complaints from journalists in the area, FAC filed CPRA requests for the utilities’ usage data for its biggest customers—the very information that the utilities had previously published. Both utilities denied the requests, citing section 6254.16. FAC filed suit against both utilities.

FAC’s suit acknowledged section 6254.16, but argued that it was meant to exempt from disclosure only information pertaining to residential customers, not to large corporate or institutional customers. Corporations, FAC argued, don’t have protectable privacy interests under FOIA laws like the CPRA.

Desert Valley Water District, in a settlement with FAC, agreed to restore publication of water usage by its nonresidential customers. Coachella Valley, however, contested the lawsuit, arguing that, regardless of the purpose behind section 6254.16, the exemption language applied literally to all utility customers, not just residential customers. The Superior Court agreed, dismissing FAC’s lawsuit.

AB 1520, if enacted, will clarify that the exemption applies only to residential customers, thus reversing the outcome of the Coachella Valley case. AB 1520, a bill of the Assembly Judiciary Committee, is backed by CNPA and the ACLU, as well as FAC. It will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee at its hearing on July 14. —Peter Scheer

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