ACWA questions CPUC draft decision defining 'essential services'

A draft decision by a California Public Utilities Commission official to exclude water agencies in its definition of 'essential services,' was roundly criticized today by the state's association of water providers.

SACRAMENTO, Calif., Aug. 28, 2001 — A draft decision by a California Public Utilities Commission official to exclude water agencies in its definition of "essential services," was roundly criticized today by the state's association of water providers.

The Association of California Water Agencies, in comments filed with the CPUC in a proceeding to determine which non-residential customers will get blackout exemptions based on public health and safety concerns, took issue with the draft decision and the consultant's report on which it was based.

Nearly 10,000 applications were received from owners of facilities throughout the state—including water agencies concerned about the threat to public health that could result from water service disruptions from blackouts. The applications were screened by a consultant and the result was incorporated into the draft decision issued by Commissioner Carl Wood August 17.

"Throughout this process we have been astounded that water service historically has not been viewed as essential and included more fully among the basic exemptions that have existed since 1980," said Dan Smith, ACWA's director of regulatory affairs. "We fear now that this error has been compounded and perpetuated."

Indeed, ACWA asked that the CPUC establish a new exemption category for water service and exclude from the exemption only those water agencies that are truly prepared to weather a prolonged power outage.

"It is prudent and appropriate that a new essential services classification be added for water supply agencies much the same as is now provided for fire, police and prison services, hospitals, communications facilities and other," Smith said.

The CPUC draft decision screened out all water agencies based on the consultant's conclusions that they "appear to be prepared" for outages. "We acknowledge that many water systems are prepared and that most take steps to be prepared as much as they can for any event that may jeopardize their ability to maintain service," Smith said. Those presumptive preparations include installation of backflow prevention devices to prevent contamination of water systems; existing provisions to restore power and, therefore, water service in the event of a fire or other emergency; and the availability of back-up power generation.

"However," Smith said, "we do not believe the summaries of the anecdotal survey included in the consultant's report validates the conclusion that all water suppliers are prepared for outages. And it certainly does not mean they do not provide an essential service and that they cannot be harmed by exposure to rotating outages. Many water systems have backup generation, but not all do and it should not be used as an excuse for the failure to acknowledge that water is an essential service."

In challenging the consultant's conclusions, ACWA cited the following specific examples:

* Backflow prevention devices may not adequately safeguard public health during outages lasting an hour or more. Once contaminated, a public water supply may take days to be restored to acceptable drinking water quality standards.

* It is unproven whether a power supplier can restore power as quickly as it may be needed to provide water needed to fight a fire or other emergency situations, and such conjecture provides an unacceptable level of public risk.

* CPUC staff surveys provided anecdotal information that some water suppliers do have backup power generation. But not all are so equipped. Even the availability of such equipment doesn't guarantee the ability to safely operate water systems for extended periods.

ACWA is a statewide organization whose 440 public water agencies are responsible for about 90% of the water delivered in California. For more information, visit www.acwanet.com.

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