A majority of East Bay MUD board members indicated last week that they plan to plow ahead with a giant new dam on the Mokelumne River. As we reported earlier this year, the dam would nearly double the size of an existing reservoir in the Sierra Foothills and destroy a beautiful section of the Mokelumne that is popular for swimming, fishing, and kayaking. The board also indicated that it will not penalize water wasters with higher fees — even though such a plan would eliminate the need for the dam. And while the board's decision is already sparking outrage among foothills residents and environmentalists, newly released public records may hint at why certain board members are so intent on keeping the dam proposal alive.
According to records supplied by the East Bay Municipal Utility District, the biggest proponent of the dam on the agency's board — John Coleman — is a heavy water user who has consumed about 663 gallons of water a day since 2000. That's nearly a quarter of a million gallons of water a year, far more than any other board member has consumed and far more than is used by the typical East Bay resident. Coleman also is the board's staunchest opponent of penalties for water guzzlers.
Contra Costa County public records show that Coleman resides in an upscale section of Walnut Creek in what Zillow.com describes as a five-bedroom, four-bath, 3,500-square-foot home on a large, 26,000-square-foot lot. According to Google satellite photos, he has a large vineyard in his backyard.
Before buying the house in 2004, county records reveal that Coleman lived in an exclusive neighborhood in Lafayette. According to Zillow, it was a four-bedroom, three-bath, 2,500-square-foot house on a 25,500-square-foot lot with a swimming pool. Coleman used even more water when he lived there, averaging about 817 gallons a day from 2000 to 2004. After moving to Walnut Creek, his consumption dropped to about 534 gallons a day from 2005 through 2008.
Technically, Coleman has no legal conflict of interest because his positions affect a wide range of people. But there's no doubt that higher water rates would personally cost him hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a year. Clearly, he has a personal interest in making sure that the dam is built and that water rates for heavy users remain relatively low.
In an interview, Coleman said he was no different from other politicians who are personally affected by their votes. "Not any more than members of the Legislature voting on taxes or tax rebates," he said. Coleman said he uses most of his water on his vineyard, which he described as taking up about a third of his yard. It also should be noted that last year, when the drought began in full force and the district implemented a surcharge on water use, his consumption declined to 463 gallons a day, which is a significant cut from previous years, although it's still a lot of water.
Coleman also asserted that he believes he uses about the average amount of water, or maybe less than average, for residents of his district, which includes Alamo, Danville, Lafayette, and portions of San Ramon, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill. But where Coleman ranks compared to his neighbors is difficult to verify because East Bay MUD charges hundreds of dollars for that information. However, according to the agency, the typical homeowner uses less than 200 gallons of water a day.
By contrast, Coleman appears to be among the largest residential water users in the East Bay. Agency officials told this reporter last year that during the summertime, the top 20 percent of the district's residential customers consume in excess of 750 gallons a day and most of them live in Contra Costa County. If Coleman has been using an average of 663 gallons a day year round, then he probably exceeds 750 in summer. In fact, Coleman said that he consumes only about 110 gallons a day during the rainy winter months, so his summertime usage must be way more than 750.
When Eco Watch told some dam opponents about Coleman's heavy water consumption, they said foothills residents will be unhappy about it. "It really angers people up here, when the people who are adamantly pushing for a dam are also using a lot of water," explained Katherine Evatt, a foothills resident and president of the Foothill Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Mokelumne, "especially, if it's for a hobby vineyard."
Evatt argued that although Coleman may be no worse than his neighbors, he should be setting an example as the vice president of a public agency whose primary responsibility is to be a good steward of the environment. "Yes, he's like his constituents in that he's using a lot of water and has extensive landscaping," she said. "But directors of the water agency should be leading the way with efficient water use."
The second largest user on the board is president Doug Linney, who lives in Alameda, and consumed about 448 gallons of water a day from 2000 to 2008, or about 164,000 gallons a year. In contrast to Coleman, Linney said at the East Bay MUD board meeting last week that he is strongly leaning toward opposing the dam when it comes up for an official vote in October. He also questioned several of the assertions by East Bay MUD staff about why the agency needs the dam. In addition, he has expressed support in the past for steeper water rates for heavy water users.
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