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Water Boarding 

It's not just for wonks anymore

Who's running for -- YaWWNn -- the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District Board? You turned on the tap today. Water came out, and it was good. End of story -- good job, people, carry on.

Um, nuh-uh. This race is an edge-of-seater. Think geysering water rates. Water grabs. Sharp-shelled creatures that clog and destroy. Odd, mysterious politicos. But, mostly, those water rates.

I mean, did you hear? Evergreen Pulp Mill's closing this week. Aside from the disaster of hundreds of jobs-in-suspense, the closure highlights the water district's already fragile grasp on maintaining reasonable water rates. Evergreen is the water district's only industrial customer these days. The mill pays almost half the district's costs of running the regional water system, and it uses more water than the 80,000 people served by the district's seven other wholesale customers -- the cities of Eureka, Arcata and Blue Lake, and the community services districts for Cutten, Manila, McKinleyville and Fieldbrook.

The mill closure is temporary -- once the economy pumps strong again and China wants its cardboard, Evergreen's back in business. But if things don't go well, and it stays shut? Water rates could triple.

This tough circumstance is hardly new. There used to be two pulp mills, using between them 60 million gallons of water a day; the seven municipal customers collectively use around 10 mgd. One of the mills closed in 1998; rates for the rest of the customers soared. Then the remaining mill cut its usage from 30 mgd to 15 mgd when it changed to a bleach-free operation.

And this caused a secondary dilemma: If the HBMWD can't lure in another big industrial customer, or several industrial customers, or some other beneficial use to sell the excess water capacity to, it could lose its right to that water -- in California, water belongs to the state, which grants rights to it for specific uses. If you don't use the water rights you've been permitted, eventually they go back into the pool. And somebody else might get them. We've already seen a panicky preview of this -- remember the deflected water bag scheme, where entrepreneurs materialized offering to bag the Mad River's precious fluids and float them south to the peopled Droughtland?

For now, however tenuously, the district has secured a new 25-year contract with the state for all of its water rights. But the privateers are still sniffing around for easy water. To preempt them, the district has formed a plan -- voted on and approved last week -- to form a multi-stakeholder think tank to develop a strategy for dealing with these water resource challenges.

The district's water future is arguably its biggest issue. Maybe that's why water board elections have been more interesting of late. It used to be a guy -- until recently, it was always guys -- could get on the water board and stay there, if he liked, running uncontested term after four-year term. Now all kinds of people want to serve, and this is the keenest election yet. Nine people are running for three seats on the five-director board.

But water rates and water grabs are not all that concern these candidates. Most also acknowledge the 50-year-old water system's need for infrastructure rehab (a plan for which the current board is about midway through developing). Some of them are eyeing the pernicious quagga mussell -- that's the barnacle-like critter that, if it ever made its way into the Ruth Lake reservoir, could multiply fiendishly and clog everything in sight: pumps, pipes and the water staff's nightmares.

Others are prepared to make fluoride an issue again.

Many just seem rather prone to service and wonkery.

And one or two might be in it purely for the game.

Whoever wins these three seats, HBMWD General Manager Carol Rische just hopes they've got their priorities in order -- that they are prepared for the mundane day-to-day business of pumps and pipes.

"The most important thing we do is deliver reliable, high-quality water every day," said Rische. "It's the reason the regional water system was built, the reason the water district was formed, and we've done it well for 50 years. So, I'm a huge believer in back-to-basics and focus on your core service mission. And this board needs to understand that and support that."

Division 1, covering the west side of Eureka

This race is not about the water.

Incumbent Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, 29, faces challenger Stephen Davies, 41. Sopoci-Belknap, a community organizer and a Green (the board is nonpartisan, but this stuff matters) comes with big endorsements -- the Humboldt County Central Labor Council, State Assemblywoman Patty Berg, Eureka City Councilmember Chris Kerrigan -- and four years already under her belt. Davies, a lawyer recently gone from Green to Democrat, comes with obscure endorsements and a fervid desire to unseat Sopoci-Belknap.

Sopoci-Belknap is best known for her role as executive director of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County. It was DU that pushed Measure T, the recently overturned act that sought to ban non-local corporations from contributing to local election campaigns. Measure T ruptured the local Green Party. And Davies -- also a Green, though not a player in the actual rift -- falls in the camp against the measure: He's a member of the ACLU, which decried Measure T as unconstitutional.

"I'm concerned that some of [Sopoci-Belknap's] political beliefs may not be in the best interest of the water district or the residents of Humboldt County," Davies said last Thursday after he'd been to the morning session of the water board -- his first time at one of its meetings. "Spending a lot of time on something that wasn't founded on a lot of legal authority didn't seem like very sound decision-making."

This is the first time Davies has run for office; to better his chances, he says, he recently switched from Green to Democrat so he could vie for the Humboldt County Democratic Central Committee's nomination. He didn't get it -- Sopoci-Belknap did, albeit unofficially because she is a Green.

Aide from all that, Davies says his 10 years' experience litigating environmental law cases, some over water quality issues, and several years of scientific training in underwater sample collection, qualify him for the water board.

He also wants to put the issue of fluoridation and water bagging sales to a public advisory vote, he said.

Sopoci-Belknap is focused on the water. She admits that four years ago, when she upset the board's status quo by defeating then-president Vern Cooney to become the board's youngest-ever member and its first woman, she didn't know much about the district.

"Initially, I was encouraged to run by a number of people because of the water bagging proposal in 2003," she said last week after the all-day water board meeting. "I was suggested because of my background with democracy and corporations."

Now, however, she's immersed in all of the issues: working on a plan to update the infrastructure; devising a multi-stakeholder planning process to shape the district's water future; promoting the new "Drink Local Water Campaign" to tell people that the perfectly fine, treated water coming out of their taps, for which they've already paid, is a superb alternative to the bottled stuff; making a plan to inspect boats at Ruth Lake for the dreaded quagga.

"I think we're one of the more functional boards in the county," she said. "And we have a broad diversity of backgrounds. ... I would like to complete some of the bigger issues we are into now."

Division 2, McKinleyville and Fieldbrook area

Five people are vying for the seat left open after Director Randy Turner left for graduate school. First, Democrat Jake Pickering: In 2006, Pickering ran for the water board's Division 4 seat (has he moved?), against incumbent Bruce Rupp, and hilarity ensued (see "Scare Quotes," Nov. 23, 2006). He's run for office elsewhere, as well: HCDCC, Humboldt County Board of Education).

Adrienne Floreen, no party affiliation, ran unsuccessfully for the McKinleyville CSD. The 25-year-old student -- undeclared major, but possibly education -- actively campaigned against the water district's proposal to add fluoride to the regional water system. (When the Manila CSD balked, the water district dropped the matter, leaving it to individual municipalities to decide.)

"I've since found out they're trying to put a different type of chlorine into the water that could be more dangerous," said Floreen last week by phone. She talked animatedly about chemicals -- those added by the district, and those people dump down their sinks. But she seemed minimally versed on the other pressing issues of the day -- the pulp mill's closure, the shaky water rights situation, long-term planning.

Democrat Tera Prucha, a 48-year-old water quality analyst, has big endorsements: Central Labor Committee, Carpenter's Union, Sopoci-Belknap, Chris Kerrigan, Bay District Commissioner Pat Higgins, Sierra Club and more. Shehas had a long-time interest in social justice issues, she said last week, as well as in organizing. She worked for Planned Parenthood; she's a founding member of the Humboldt Watershed Council; and she's worked on local water-related issues as an organizer and, more recently, as an expert in water quality analysis -- she recently went back to get a degree in the subject.

"I'm freshly degreed," she said. "So I'm very up on regulations, state water policy law and some of the things that other communities are doing to solve the problems that we're facing here in Humboldt County."

The big issues facing the district drive her candidacy. "When that water bag guy showed up several years ago, that really scared me," she said.

Democrat Edward "Buzz" Webb, 71, is a retired Humboldt State University V.P. of student affairs, and a former associate dean at San Diego State University. He's served on a gazillion boards: school, Six Rivers Planned Parenthood (SRPP), Patrick Creek CSD and more. He's a literacy tutor. He, too, has big endorsements: Assemblywoman Patty Berg, Humboldt County Supervisor Jill Geist and more.

Webb first got interested in the water district when he realized McKinleyville didn't have fluoride -- which he figured it ought to have "like 75 percent of the rest of the country." But he's been interested in water for a long time. He's read Cadillac Desert, Mark Reisner's ode and caution to Western water law, and others like it. And now the big issues concern him: the pulp mill's closing, tripled water rates, aging infrastructure, the quagga mussell. "I'm not in favor of selling to a private interest," he said. "Only to another public water agency."

His strength, he said, is problem solving. "I've got the skills and experience, and I'd like to put them to use."

One thing neither he nor Prucha have is the HCDCC's endorsement -- twice the committee voted on which of them to endorse, and twice it came to a draw.

Finally, there's Ben Shepherd, 66, a Republican. A retired teacher and school administrator, Shepherd's in tight with the McKinleyville and Fieldbrook CSDs, several of whose members have endorsed him. He's run five times for the MCSD himself, and won. He also ran three times unsuccessfully for county supervisor.

Shepherd is an averred wonk. You push any button -- quagga mussell, infrastructure, pulp mill, water rights -- and he will respond in energetic detail.

"My big thing is local control," he said. "We are already exporting water from the Klamath and Trinity system. We need to have at least one river that stays here, and the Mad River is it."

He touts his ability to understand the process of governing and figuring things out, and his long-time involvement in politics.

"I'm not coming in cold," he said. "I have a broad base. I understand the issues."

Division 3, unincorporated areas around Eureka (Cutten, Manila, etc)

This race is old blood-new blood. Incumbent Director Barbara Hecathorn, a Republican and a retired banker, was appointed to the board in 2005 after her husband, Lloyd Hecathorn, died. Lloyd was the longest-serving member of the board -- 25 years -- and Barbara was always by his side or even standing in for him at some state water meetings. She's a water wonk by osmosis. In 2006 she ran for re-election and won. She has the big endorsements: fellow directors Bruce Rupp and Aldaron Laird, Eureka Mayor Virginia Bass, Eureka Councilmember Mike Jones and county supervisors Jill Geist and John Woolley.

She knows well the nuances of the district's current big challenges -- and notes her qualifications: "My experience on the board, my contributions, my financial background -- I'm looking at continuity," she said. "I came in with some knowledge, and I've gained some more."

Like the other candidates, she's big on keeping the water local. "I'd never sell the rights unless the community wanted to," she said. "The best scenario would be to bring water users here -- environmentally friendly water businesses."

Her challenger, Democrat Robert Schultz, said there's the problem: Everyone's talking about keeping the water local, but nobody's coming up with fresh ideas.

"We need to start thinking outside of the box," he said. The board, ever since [the first pulp mill] closed, has not really replaced that industrial base."

Schultz has been in food service management for 20 years, and ran a stove business. He wants the district to tap into the University of California's "brain trust" for solutions, and seek grants to move them forward. "There's got to be a water-based industry, and God knows we need jobs up here. I just saw an opportunity here -- I can just open the minds of the board."

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Bio:
Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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