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Ocean-Plastic Cleanup Schemes Fail to Separate Fantasy From Reality

Ocean-Plastic Cleanup Schemes Fail to Separate Fantasy From Reality

By Sarah (Steve) Mosko
Special to the Surf City Voice

Imagine using a thimble to empty a bathtub, with the faucet still running. That’s how experts on ocean plastics pollution generally see schemes focused on extracting the debris from the open ocean instead of strategies to prevent plastic waste from getting there in the first place.

Interest in methods to rid the oceans of plastic debris is motivated by very real threats to the entire ocean food web. The “North Pacific Garbage Patch” is the most studied of the five subtropical gyres, gigantic whirlpools where waste is picked up and concentrated by slow-swirling currents. There, plastic debris already outweighs zooplankton, tiny creatures at the base of the food web, by a factor of 36:1, according to the latest trawls by the Algalita Marine Research Institute in Long Beach.

Conventional plastics do not biodegrade on land or in water, but become brittle in sunlight and break apart into ever smaller bits of plastic, still containing toxic substances introduced during manufacture – like phthalates, bisphenol-A and flame retardants. Plastics also attract and concentrate persistent oily pollutants present in seawater. So plastic debris not only threatens sea creatures through entanglement or by clogging their digestive tracts, but also introduces dangerous chemicals into the food chain.

Except for the tiny fraction of plastics which has been incinerated, all plastic ever manufactured is still somewhere on the planet. And, with virgin plastics production still greatly outpacing recycling – which in the United States averaged only eight percent in 2010 – our oceans will continue to become more polluted with plastics until something is done to stop it. But given the vastness of the oceans, which cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface or some 360 million square kilometers, the question is, what realistically can be done?

The 5 subtropical gyres

The 5 subtropical gyres. Click to see entire image.

There are obvious realities which have to be confronted in any offshore cleanup plan, starting with how to find the debris. Gyres are loosely-defined expanses the size of continents. Even in the center where debris accumulation peaks, the effect is of a plastic soup with fragments distributed throughout the water column to a depth of roughly 20 meters. And, plastics are in no way confined to gyres, but amassing throughout marine environments as diverse as shoreline mangroves and the Arctic seafloor.

Next is the challenge of selectively extracting plastics, which become microscopic over time, without destroying sea life, and what about plastics already colonized by sea creatures? Then follows the dilemma of what to do with the plastics once extracted and, of course, how to fund the operation. Moreover, any device deployed in the sea would have to contend with the highly corrosive forces wrought by constant motion, violent storms, and accumulation of bird droppings and barnacles.

Two very different, recently proposed cleanup schemes serve to illustrate inherent challenges.

The Clean Oceans Project (TCOP) is a Santa Cruz-based non-profit proposing to build a manned, 65-foot sailing catamaran designed to skim from the sea’s surface four common types of plastics that float: #2HDPE, #4LDPE, #5PP, & #6PS. Polymers that don’t float, like nylon or #3PVC, could not be targeted. However, as 80 percent of marine plastic pollution is from land-based sources and predominantly from single-use products made of the targeted polymers, a meaningful dent might be made in the millions of tons of plastic debris believed to pollute the N. Pacific Gyre alone.

Gyre currents conveniently sweep floating debris into “streams” called windrows, visible to the naked eye. TCOP’s co-founder, Jim Holm, says that sophisticated technologies already on the open market enable both pinpointing the densest streams for cherry picking and removing floating debris from the water. Plastics are reaped onto a conveyor that, by vibrating, wards off turtles and swimming fish. Creatures which have colonized the debris would be stripped by hand and returned to the sea.

The plan is to target only debris captured by a ¼ inch mesh, as removing the larger stuff should, consequently, diminish microplastics over time. A hand-held spectrophotometer would aid in sorting plastics by polymer.

For TCOP, the game changer was stumbling upon a Japanese company, Blest, that already markets a plastics-to-light crude oil converter that can generate a gallon of fuel from eight pounds of plastic waste. There are no toxic air emissions (just water vapor and carbon dioxide) because the plastics are not incinerated, just heated for distillation into fuels.

TCOP hopes to create the first-ever shipboard converter to generate enough fuel to supplement the wind and solar sail technology that would power the catamaran. The costly transfer of collected plastics to landfills or recyclers (located primarily in China) would be eliminated. Priced at $199,000, the converter is designed to handle ~500 pounds of plastic in a day.

Plastics ingested by rainbow runner. (Algalita Martine Research Institute)

Plastics ingested by rainbow runner. (Algalita Martine Research Institute)

TCOP is seeking funding to deploy a test run in the N. Pacific Gyre. Holm is forthright in dismissing any fantasy that the endeavor would be profitable, acknowledging the indispensable support from corporate and philanthropic organizations.

A Dutch engineering student, Boyan Slat, recently made a media splash for a different cleanup design which capitalizes instead on a gyre’s natural currents to sweep debris to a fixed collection vessel anchored to the seafloor. Though few details are offered at this point, Slat conceives of a giant manta ray-shaped platform sporting two long, arm-like booms in an open “V” configuration for trapping floating debris ushered in by the current.

The round-surfaced booms would encourage plankton and other creatures to slide under unharmed, while plankton captured accidentally would somehow be separated out by gentle centrifugation. Slat has boldly predicted that only 24 such devices, staggered in a zigzagging line spanning one radius of the N. Pacific Gyre, could virtually clean it up in just five years by removing an estimated 7,250,000,000 kg of plastic debris. He postulates that the venture could be paid for by selling collected plastics to recyclers.

Slat’s design is still in the early idea stage, as his Ocean Cleanup Foundation was just founded this year, and he is seeking donations totaling $80,000 to conduct feasibility studies.

There’s been no shortage of skepticism about Slat’s proposal. For example, Stiv Wilson, policy director for the non-profit 5 Gyres Institute dedicated to remediating ocean plastic pollution, points out that the average depth of the open ocean is nearly 4,000 feet, twice the deepest successful moorings to date, and that a violent storm can destroy the sturdiest anchoring. Wilson also believes the cost alone of hauling plastics back to shore and to recyclers would exceed their market value. Add to this costly spectrophotometric analysis for sorting by polymer.

Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup. (Ocean Conservancy)

Beach cleanup is gyre cleanup.
(Ocean Conservancy)

The issue of whether there could ever be a market for plastics reaped from the sea definitely looms. Recycling weakens plastics’ polymer bonds, so plastics are generally “down-cycled” just once into end-products destined for landfills, like lumber. The first-ever plastic bottle with any post-ocean content, so far housing just one “Method” brand soap, is being marketed primarily to raise awareness about the need for packaging with recycled content. Infrastructure for recycling plastics in general within the United States remains very limited. Also, whether China will continue to accept the majority of U.S.’s plastic waste is brought into question by Operation Green Fence, China’s new policy blocking highly contaminated waste materials from entering.

Even if any gyre cleanup devices are ever successfully deployed, alone they could not solve the crisis of ocean plastics pollution, a conclusion that both Holm and Slat share. After recycling, the average American generates a half pound of plastic refuse daily (USEPA). As consumption of plastics generally parallels development, worldwide plastic waste generation is expected to continue to rise into the future. It seems delusional to believe that open ocean cleanup schemes could keep pace with new plastics entering the oceans.

The only rational approach is to focus first and foremost on stemming the flow of plastics into marine environments. In addition to maximizing recycling and placing barriers at obvious ocean entry points like river mouths, significant societal transformations are needed: for consumers, a shift away from single-use plastics and, for industry, embracing “extended producer responsibility” policies which make producers responsible for the sustainability of what they manufacture.

A good start might entail a producer fee on products made of virgin plastics, asking manufacturers to take back and recycle their products, and an end to planned product obsolescence. A study recently published in Marine Pollution Bulletin confirms that marine litter is reduced when plastics are better managed on land.

For plastics pollution already at sea, oceanographer and flotsam expert Curtis Ebbesmeyer points out that maybe half a gyre’s contents is jettisoned each rotation, ferried eventually by currents onto shores. This means anyone can lend a hand in gyre cleanup by participating in the annual International Coastal Cleanup organized by the Ocean Conservancy. The next one is on Sept. 21.

Lead photo credit: Plastic debris from N. Pacific Gyre. (Algalita Marine Research Institute)

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Mesa Water District: Was $290,000 PR Consultant Worth It?

Mesa Water District: Was $290,000 PR Consultant Worth It?

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Amidst much recent criticism in the press, the Mesa Water District‘s elaborate public relations program, along with its “branding” effort in particular, seems to have backfired (read here and here).

Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa’s public relations or “communications” annual budget has expanded from about $400,000 to a projected $1.4 million for FY 2014—with about $3.8 million spent since FY 2011.

One consulting firm in particular, Laer Pearce & Associates, had a strong influence on Mesa Water’s public relations approach in the past several years, especially its branding program, and rests at the center of the recent controversy.

Today the Surf City Voice begins a daily presentation of invoices from that contract which had an end cost of $209,141.40. Consulting contracts are not on Mesa Water’s website.

Looking at Mesa Water District’s contract with LP&A invoice by invoice, was it worth the price?

The answer depends on Mesa Water’s (vs. the public’s?) priorities and needs as well as the quality of the assigned work. In the following weeks, as the reader goes through the LPA invoices that Mesa Water paid, he or she can decide if the money was wisely spent or not.

LP&A started working for Mesa Water in April, 2008. In September, 2009, Paul Shoenberger, formerly a member of Mesa’s board of directors, was appointed general manager.

The contract between LPA and Mesa Water came out to roughly 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week if you only calculate for the lower range of the $265 – $350 per hour that LPA charged.

That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per years for the same work that Mesa Water Communications Manager Stacy Taylor–who has over 20 years of professional experience, including running her own public relations firm, theoretically could have done under a salary of $194,000 per year, including benefits.

Of the $290,141.40 paid by Mesa Water to LPA, $152,709.73 was spent on its recently terminated (re) branding program, which included nearly $29,000 spent on preparation for the District’s 50th anniversary celebration, another special VIP private party paid for with additional ratepayers’ money — in the same vein as the controversial $50,000 private party the District threw in March to celebrate completion of its so-called Reliability Facility (previously Colored Water Treatment Facility).

Laer Pearce Invoice

Work report from the first invoice to Mesa Water from Laer Pearce & Associates

The first invoice, #7598, is from April 11, 2008, to September Sept. 10, 2008. The bill is $3,450, mostly for “Meetings, Consultation and Project Support.” The Monthly Activity Report shows that the total budgeted for the “project” was $51,100 with $47,650 remaining. Also, the report notes, “$54,735 in additional funds were also proposed. The final budget yet to be determined.”

Here’s what Mesa Water, then named Mesa Consolidated Water District, got for its $3,450:

  • Attended 2/23 and 8/25 meetings at Mesa with Lee Pearl [Mesa Water's general manager at that time], Coleen Monteleone, Amanda Gavin and Adam Probolsky to discuss outreach and survey strategy.
  • Reviewed proposed survey questions from Adam Probolsky and comments from Board and staff; provided comments; prepared list of additional questions for the team’s consideration.
  • Researched and drafted memo on potential award opportunities available to Mesa
  • Sent chart of local water district rates to team with comments.
  • Discussion with Coleen Monteleone about moving forward with initial elements of outreach plan.

Click the photo thumbnail above to read the work report in detail.

For balance, the reader/ratepayer can read Laer Pearce’s justification of Mesa Water’s contract with his firm (here).

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Mesa Water Vs. the Media: 13 Possible Reasons Why

Mesa Water Vs. the Media: 13 Possible Reasons Why

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

On March 14, 2013, Mesa Water District’s board of directors passed 5 – 0 a press credentialing policy. That policy is designed to tightly control media access to public functions, like the recent VIP private $50,000 party that the agency threw for itself at ratepayers’ expense. In my public speech to the board on that evening, I speculated as to the reasons for Mesa Water’s new obsession with creating a draconian press control policy. To supplement my views expressed that night, I offer the following 13 additional, specific, possible reasons for that obsession.

  1. New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists
  2. Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense
  3. Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even
  4. Huntington Beach Mayor Proposes Coastal Commission Reject of Poseidon Desalination Permit
  5. A REBUTTAL TO POSEIDON RESOURCES’ ‘FACT vs. FICTION’ FLYER
  6. Bad Branding: Mesa Water District’s Marketing Scheme Backfires
  7. ‘Nowaterdeal’: Desal Plant Opponents Will Reach Out to Thousands of Orange County Voters
  8. Can the Municipal Water District of Orange County Find A Reason to Exist?
  9. Commentary: Mesa Water Drops Fiduciary Duties as Ratepayers Pick Up the Tab
  10. Get Desal Permits Quickly by Coordinating Early & Designing a Good Project, State Panelists Say
  11. Election Sob Story: Mesa Water Directors Plot to Remove Trudy Ohlig-Hall from Office
  12. Does Mesa Water Take Your Comments Seriously? Yes, to Your Face – No, Behind Your Back
  13. Interview with Mesa Water’s Paul Shoenberger on CalDesal

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New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists

New Mesa Water Press Credential Policy Weeds Out Journalists and Terrorists

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Mesa Water District isn’t just building colored water treatment facilities and rebranding itself or building up huge cash surpluses by raising water rates, as reported in recent press accounts, including in the Surf City Voice.

It’s also doing its part in the war against terrorism, and controlling the media and deciding which journalists are “credible” and “factual”, not the usual job of government in a democracy, is apparently part of Mesa Water’s strategy.

That’s what a small audience of public citizens learned last March 14 at a meeting of the water district’s five-member all-male board of directors.

Clueless directors accidentally use shovels to point to exact location of new water treatment facility. Photo from Mesa Water website.

Clueless directors accidentally use shovels to point to exact location of new water treatment facility. Photo from Mesa Water website.

The meeting occurred the day after a nearly $50,000 ratepayer funded private party held early in the day at Mesa Water’s so-called Water Reliability Facility (formerly the Colored Water Treatment Facility) for about 150 VIP guests, including other water buffaloes, consultants, water industry CEOs, local politicians and family or friends of directors and staff.

The new anti-terrorism program falls under Mesa Water’s new press credentialing policy, which was approved unanimously by the board but had already gone through a dry run at the VIP event.

That event was previewed as a possible illegal use of public funds in a Surf City Voice story (here) two days before it occured.

The new policy requires that journalists who cover Mesa Water’s various outreach activities, like the VIP event, be accredited by the agency first. The standards are strict, carefully designed to maximize media control by Mesa Water and the amount of favorable media coverage for the district’s policies and projects.

Some examples of the convoluted, Stalinist, and probably unconstitutional policy, which was passed by the board March 14:

  • Journalists will be given credentials “on a case-by-case basis, taking into consideration such factors as: the nature of the Mesa Water activity; the outlet’s editorial focus, influence, news credibility, and reach…”
  • Credentialed journalists must present their credentials to any Mesa Water representative upon request;
  • Reporters who want to record the event must get prior approval and “must be accompanied by Mesa Water staff or have prior approval from Mesa Water Communications Department.”
  • Writers for online media must represent websites that provide “credible, factual, and original editorial news coverage…”
  • Writers for personal blogs and websites cannot get credentials.

There’s more to the two-part application, which, it says, must be filled out seven days before, but representatives for already favored (corporate) media, the Register, Daily Pilot, and Orange County radio station KOCI (which is sponsored by Mesa Water with a $13,000 contract that guarantees favorable mentions, according to a Register story), weren’t held to the new standard, since it hadn’t been passed by the board and was used as a guideline, according to Denise Garcia, executive assistant to General Manager Paul Shoenberger.

Mesa Water publicity photo exposes inner workings of water treatment facility to potential terrorist reporters

Mesa Water publicity photo exposes inner workings of water treatment facility to potential terrorist reporters

This reporter did not apply for a credential due to the principle that news content should not be determined by government officials. Also, Taylor already was familiar with my water journalism, no small part of it critical of Mesa Water, which spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of ratepayer dollars to study and to contain it.

My request to enter the grounds of the Mesa Water Reliability Treatment VIP event was denied on the spot, of course, by Taylor, who claimed that I was being excluded because:

“It’s a private event. Invite only. And this is for the supporters of the project, the people that have partnered with us to get this project built. So this is a celebratory day for industry partners and supporters of Mesa Water. We did have a couple of public events prior to this and you’re certainly welcome to come any time by appointment.”

Taylor repeatedly pointed out that I was welcome for a private tour by appointment. But the whole point of my being there, obviously, was to cover that event, which was not only paid for by ratepayers ($49,650) but was also sponsored for at least $5,550 by various water industry corporations, including Poseidon Resources, that have a potential financial interest with Mesa Water.

Knowing ahead of time that I would not be allowed to enter the event—in fact, sources at Mesa Water claimed that staff had a code word they were supposed to communicate to each other if I showed up—I called board president James Fisler to ask for one of the five guest passes he had been given by Mesa.

Then Fisler attacked my preview story of the VIP event as “so inaccurate” and said, “I just don’t know about you, John.”

Fisler was partly right.

As I noted the same day in a correction/retraction (here), the story had inaccurately stated that General Manager Paul Shoenberger had exceeded his authority to spend ratepayers’ money on the private VIP party.  But the rest of the story, that the event appeared to be a misuse of public funds, stands correct, I pointed out.

But Fisler was angry at me for other reasons, not related to inaccuracy, because I didn’t write about what he perceived to be Mesa Water’s great accomplishments, like its triple-A bond rating—the result of increased water rates and a $22 million rainy-day stash of cash with plans to double that amount.

The VIP event wasn’t a personal use of funds, he said, and, no, he won’t give me one of his five invitations because “I don’t like what you write.” Then he retracted that reason and said I wouldn’t get an invitation because the invitations are for his friends. Besides, “the flag [thing] bothered me,” a reference to my decision not to stand for the pledge of allegiance at water board meetings.

At the March 14 board meeting, Fisler explained why he supported the media credential program.

“I think that we have a very dynamic communications department outreach,” he said. “And we will be having events in the future and it’s very important that we have a process in place to control who is on property.”

The press credential rules do not prevent reporters from filming, like I was doing at that very meeting, he said. “This is about events where we are controlling the size of the crowd, perhaps, or a list of invitees. And I think it’s a good policy to have.”

Then, Director Shawn Dewane took Fisler’s reasoning a huge step further, citing national security as another reason for Mesa Water’s new press credential policy. “Critical water infrastructure is controlled under federal law called Presidential Homeland Security Directive Number 5,” he said.

Mesa Water District webpage photo (taken from time lapse video) could fall into the wrong hands.

This Mesa Water District webpage photo (taken from time lapse video) could fall into the wrong hands.

“Water infrastructure projects fall under the directive,” he continued, “and it is in the best interests on the public at large that people are generally not allowed to walk around public infrastructure projects like this [MWRF] and photograph critical public infrastructure facilities and be able to display them however they might and broadcast that around the world. I believe that the District discussed this several years ago and that this policy is in compliance with that.”

Actually, Directive Number 5 says nothing about protecting national security by excluding journalists from lavish parties thrown for water district officials and their friends, but says that the federal government will help state and local authorities “manage domestic incidents by establishing a single, comprehensive national incident management system.”

Dewane’s grandiose concern for preventing a terrorist attack at the Mesa Water Reliability Facility contrasts with all the photos and video images of the MWRF that clutter the agency’s website (see photos on this page)—for all the world’s would-be terrorists to see—and the Facebook photo of the testosterone saturated Dewane himself aiming what looks like an AK 47 at, one presumes, imaginary journalists or other likely terrorists.

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Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense

Mesa Water District: Vanity Leads to Questionable Media Consulting Fees at Ratepayers’ Expense

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

The Mesa Water District spent hundreds, if not thousands of dollars preparing its general manager and communications manager for a thirty minute interview with this reporter and researching my background, according to invoices obtained by the Surf City Voice under the Public Records Act.

The invoices are only four from a total of 30 received by Mesa Water from the consulting firm of Laer Pearce Associates between October, 2008 and December, 2012 for “branding” and general public relations and marketing assistance. But they help show the District’s obsession with its public image ever since Paul Shoenberger became its general manager in 2009 and hired Stacy Taylor as its communications manager in 2010.

That obsession became a costly exercise in vanity paid for by Mesa Water’s ratepayers.

Laer Pearce Associates invoice report

Laer Pearce Associates invoice report. Click once or twice to enlarge.

In chronological order, the first invoice (7976), for billing period Dec. 1 to Dec. 31, 2011, under “Media Relations”, states, “Attended 12/9 meeting with Paul and Stacy to discuss Surf City Voice interview request; drafted responses to questions submitted by reporter; worked with Taylor to help coordinate interview.”

Also under Media Relations:

  • Briefed Stacy on potential upcoming KOCE interview request; discussed strategy.
  • Prepared District messaging regarding ocean desalination.
  • Drafted quote and identified photos for Water Operator magazine inquiry.
  • Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.

Other categories were Collateral, Event Support, Branding, Community Outreach (no billings), and Website.

True to form for most of the LPA invoices, Invoice #7976 bills $4,500.00 on Media Relations of the $5,630.20 bill total, but does not show a detailed hourly breakdown for each subcategory of work, so there is no way of knowing how much time was spent researching the Surf City Voice or other news services or how much it cost per hour (when asked to explain the incomplete billing procedures, Taylor did not respond).

Likewise, Invoice #7982 (Jan. 1 – Jan. 31, 2012) lists $3,610.00 billed for Media Relations of a total bill of $8,162.00:

  • Attended 1/4 meeting with Paul and Stacy to prepare for Surf City Voice Interview; drafted bullet-point messages for Paul’s use during the interview; prepared press release following the interview recapping the discussion.
  • Drafted memo on potential social media opportunities
  • Reviewed OC Register, Daily Pilot and local news blogs for issues pertinent to Mesa Water; provided recommendations as necessary.

Invoice #8009 April 1 – April 30, 2012), however, is more detailed. It bills $318.00 for Media Relations out of a total bill of $8,842.90 and breaks it down in detail:

  • Meeting with Stacy at WACO to discuss Surf City Voice: 0.50hrs/$265/hr for $132.00
  • Researched reporters and contact info for Stacy: 0.70 hrs $265/hr for $185.50
  • For professional services rendered: 1.20 hrs/total $318.00

Invoice #8027 (June 1 – June 30, 2012) lists $220.00 spent on Media Relations, $132.50 for reviewing a Surf City Voice interview with Paul Shoenberger (here) and $87.00 (at $350/hr) for only reading a commentary by Director Fred Bockmiller published in the OC Register.

The Surf City Voice interview (here) that LPA helped Shoenberger and Taylor prepare for was conducted in January of 2012 and subsequently published in May, 2012, and apparently raised a lot of concern before and after it was published, as a series of emails reveal (see sidebar).

The invoices represent but a fraction of the total $290,141.40 that the district paid LPA for an ongoing contract that ended in December, but they illustrate the type of services provided that, arguably, were unnecessary or could have been provided at far less cost by Mesa’s communications manager, Stacy Taylor, whose $194,000 salary is already relatively high, according to a recent story in the OC Register.

Laer Pearce Associates invoice reportHourly pay rates charged to Mesa Water by LPA ranged from $265 per hour for work by LPA associate Ben Boyce to $350 for LPA president Laer Pearce.  Assuming – only to simplify calculations – that LPA charged the lower rate, LPA did a total of 1095 hours of work or 27 weeks of work at 40 hours per week.

That would come out to a rate of $508,000 per year for the same work that Taylor, who has over 20 years experience as a senior-level communications professional, could do or that her new assistant, Ann Moreno, could do in a salary range between $70,000 to $96,000.

Pearce objects to that comparison. By email, he wrote, “I couldn’t disagree more with your conclusion that there is any validity at all in the way you manipulated our billing rate,” he wrote. “To test it, ask yourself that if we billed someone $500 for a small task, would you say we could have billed them $400,000, based on our billing rate, if it had been a really big task? It illuminates nothing because it’s not based in reality.”

Recent news stories in the Voice of OC, the Register, Daily Pilot and the Surf City Voice, have questioned Mesa Water’s increased cash reserves and public relations spending budget in particular.

Starting Friday, the Surf City Voice will periodically publish LPA’s paid invoices to the Mesa Water District in full as well as other documents related to the Mesa Water District’s Strategic Communications Plan, so that ratepayers and the general public might better determine how their public water agency is being managed.

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Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even

Mesa Water District: ‘Plz Don’t Circulate this Story!’ And Director Fisler Gets Even

 

By John Earl
Surf City Voice

Editor’s note: See related story, here.

Getting thirty-minutes of interview time in January 2012 with the Mesa Water District’s general manager, Paul Shoenberger, wasn’t easy.

Spontaneous interviews with Mesa Water staff or members of the board of directors are discouraged whenever possible by Communications Manager, Stacy Taylor. Potentially tough or touchy media questions must be submitted to her in advance so that she can provide public answers that fit Mesa Water’s “unified voice” template.

At Taylor’s insistence, general interview questions were submitted in advance, but with my stipulation that there was no guarantee that I would limit myself to the exact wording of those questions during the interview or would not ask follow up questions.

The interview took place in Mesa Water’s executive committee room and was strictly limited to 30 minutes in the presence of both Shoenberger and Taylor and was recorded by both parties.

The main topic of the interview was CalDesal, the secretive non-profit organization that Mesa Water started—with ratepayers’ money—several years ago—and still helps finance with free labor and services even though CalDesal supposedly went its own private way—to promote ocean desalination projects and the desalination industry.

Contrary to California’s open meetings law, the general public is not allowed at CalDesal meetings nor is it generally given meeting agendas and minutes. Financial documents, the “990″ forms that non-profits are required to disclose, are also denied repeatedly to this reporter by CalDesal’s president, Shawn Dewane, who is also a Mesa Water board member.

James Fisler

A cheap shot of Mesa Water’s Director James Fisler at a CalDesal mixer. Photo: provided by Mesa Water District

At the time, I didn’t know that the entire process was being directed by a public relations consulting firm, Laer Pearce Associates, that charged Mesa’s ratepayers between $265 – $350 per hour and that hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars would be paid to LPA to prepare Shoenberger for the interview, on top of what was paid to Mesa’s communications manager, Stacy Taylor, who gets close to $200,000 a year including benefits.

Emails acquired under the Public Records Act later would reveal how cynically manipulative Shoenberger, Taylor and LPA had been and that Mesa Water officials are motivated more by vanity than a desire to objectively inform the ratepayers.

Before the interview, their goal was to limit and control the questions as much as possible. After publication, the main goal was to contain the interview and to marginalize this reporter, while violating copyright law (republishing the story without permission), even though LPA president Laer Pearce and Taylor both agreed that the edited interview was fair and accurate.

An email from Taylor to Mesa Water directors and staff, and to LPA, for example, stated, in full:

  • Greetings: The attached story ran on the Surf City Voice blog on May 28, 2012. I purposely did not share the link to the post & removed all Surf City Voice links from the story. If you wish to share this, please do so using the attached instead of going to the website. I have also pasted the story below. So far, I found that Aquafornia (blog) has posted this story & it will probably be posted by OC Voice soon (I will let you know). Also, there is only one reply to this story as follows below the story. All in all, I think this turned out as good as can be expected from this type of media opportunity.

In another, earlier, email, Taylor wrote, “Plz (sic) don’t circulate the story link I sent you since doing so will add to its ‘popularity’ on the web (each click on the link will increase the story’s web ranking). Instead, I will capture the content for sharing. Please feel free to contact me any time re. this.”

Curiously, Ron Wildermuth, Director of Public Information and Conservation at West Basin Water District where Shoenberger had served for years as assistant general manager, was also included in the emails. “Good job,” he wrote to Shoenberger, “This is about as hostile and biased an interviewer I have seen in a while. You stuck to your points well.”

But Pearce praised the interview story.

“John Earl admits he is not objective, but insists he writes objectively,” he said. “On is (sic) story, I have to agree. He let his biases show, but told the CalDesal and Mesa Water stories fairly. Of course it helped that Paul tied everything to Mission and was not swayed off the core messages of the district.”

Although Pearce misunderstood my theory on journalistic objectivity (namely, that any reporter who claims to be without bias is either deluded or a liar, and that acknowledgement of that bias first and foremost to self helps facilitate honest, in-depth reporting), the objectivity he shows in his review of my story is also praiseworthy, despite the excessive cost to Mesa Water’s ratepayers.

Mesa Water Director (and current board president) James Fisler, was both complimentary and critical:

  • Very good job Paul! No dodging, just telling it like it is and sticking to Mesa’s message and priority of providing water. Good questions by Earl and good answers by you. Shows Mesa Water is on top of it’s (sic) mission. Earl’s only attempted “gotcha” of people at mixers is a poor attempt. Business and chambers have mixers all the time. They are very important parts of getting business done and learning new things by networking. Again, great job.

Fisler was referring to my photos of him and other directors at a CalDesal mixer-meeting attended by about 100 water officials, consultants and representatives of the desalination industry, but nobody from the general public.

In another email later that day, Fisler added:

  • “…If it was supposed to be a hit piece or something it failed miserably. I need to get a picture of Earl eating a donut at WACO.”

Fisler was expressing a grudge against this reporter that he still holds to this day. Writing under the pen name “nogrowther” on the Orange Juice blog, he lashed out at me over a year ago for publishing the detailed objections of Irvine Ranch Water district director, Peer Swan, to the Poseidon ocean desalination project proposed for Huntington Beach.

Fisler bitterly complained that I didn’t say the pledge of allegiance at water Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) meetings, that I was unkempt in appearance and that I liked to eat the donuts that are left out at MWDOC meetings for water buffaloes like him.

Eventually, Fisler’s “gotcha” wish came true, about a year later at the recent (May) joint-meeting of MWDOC and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MET) held at the MWDOC board room in Fountain Valley.

I was sitting in one of the plebeian seats at the back of the room, directly opposite of the speaker’s podium, next to Debbie Cook, watching a presentation on MWDOC’s $120,000 video screen by MET’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger about the Sacramento Delta. We need to spend billions of dollars fixing the Delta levies and to build a big double-barreled tunnel to import more water to southern California, he said.

Kightlinger was predicting the disastrous consequences to California’s economy of a Delta broken to pieces by a 100-year earthquake – coming any day now. Suffering from acute sleep deprivation, I desperately walked over to the refreshment table to help myself to a glazed twister.

“Anything to stay awake,” I thought. “Must…help…save…the…Delta.”

Out of the 100 or so water buffaloes present, only Fisler seemed unable to pay attention to the important message and had become obsessed, as I lifted the doughnut, with watching me like a hawk from one of the big black MWDOC directors’ seats behind the dais.

Smelling blood, the upcoming Delta catastrophe apparently gone from his mind, Fisler approached me.

Standing over me just a few feet away, dour faced, he shyly snapped a couple of photos of me holding my doughnut on a plate and kindly offering it up to him. He still didn’t laugh or even smile.Then he walked back to his seat where, perhaps, his attention returned to more important matters.

One other interesting tidbit found in the exchange of emails is a missive from Poseidon’s VP, Scott Maloni, an important member of Mesa Water’s inner circle of close friends. Always angry over my critical reporting of the dreamed of but still elusive Huntington Beach ocean desalination plant over the years, he refuses to answer my media questions and long ago banned other Poseidon CEOs from doing so. In his email to Shoenberger, he wrote:

“Paul – As I’ve told Kevin Hunt [former general manager at MWDOC], John Earl is not a journalist; you don’t owe him ‘transparency.’ Nothing good will ever come out of engaging him and he’ll never be someone you can trust or befriend. Best to ignore him or have your staff handle him.”

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Huntington Beach Mayor Proposes Coastal Commission Reject of Poseidon Desalination Permit

Huntington Beach Mayor Proposes Coastal Commission Reject of Poseidon Desalination Permit

Mayor Connie Boardman’s proposed letter to the California Coastal Commission, below, will be before the Huntington Beach City Council on Monday, May 6, 2013. Public comments will be heard at the start of the city council meeting. Her proposed letter is based on findings made previously by Coastal Commission (here). A debate on the pros proposed Poseidon desalination plant can be read (here) and (here).

May 6, 2013

California Coastal Commission
45 Fremont Street, Suite 2000

San Francisco, CA 94105

Dear Commissioners:

In 2010, the Huntington Beach City Council approved the Coastal Development Permit No. 10-014, conditionally approving the “Poseidon Seawater Desalination Project”(Poseidon CDP).

The city’s approval of the Poseidon CDP was appealed by several organizations, aswell as Commissioners Wan and Mirkarimi.

I have been authorized by the Huntington Beach City Council to communicate to you that the current Huntington Beach City Council does not support the project as it is currently presented.

We are requesting that the California Coastal Commission deny the Coastal Development Permit for the Poseidon desalination project in Huntington Beach when this issue comes before the Commission.

Sincerely,
Connie Boardman
Mayor
City of Huntington Beach

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A REBUTTAL TO  POSEIDON RESOURCES’  ‘FACT vs. FICTION’ FLYER

A REBUTTAL TO POSEIDON RESOURCES’ ‘FACT vs. FICTION’ FLYER

Editor’s Note: Opponents of an ocean desalination plant (Nowaterdeal) proposed for Huntington Beach, California, recently launched a major campaign to block the project (here). Poseidon Resources created a response to some of those claims and is circulating it publicly. The Voice republished it here. NoWaterDeal issued the counter rebuttal to Poseidon recently. On Monday, May 6, the Huntington Beach City Council will consider a proposal (here) by Mayor Connie Boardman to recommended to the California Coastal Coastal Commission to deny the Coastal Development Permit for the project when it considers the project this summer.

By NoWaterDeal.com

Recently Poseidon Resources, through their media produced an open letter titled: “Don’t be misled by anti-desalination campaign mailer. Get the facts here.”

This letter makes a futile attempt to dispute the facts surrounding the Poseidon Huntington Beach Seawater Desalination Facility as presented in the No Water Deal With Poseidon mailer and website, which can be seen at www.nowaterdeal.com. Below we directly address the statements in their letter with the real facts regarding the project.

Statement: “Desalinated seawater will replace the need to import water; thus eliminating the imported water costs; however, in their calculation, opponents failed to deduct the avoided cost of imported water. This is an uninformed mistake.”

Fact: Jeff Kightlinger the Executive Director of The Metropolitan Water District (MET), the main water provider for Southern California has stated that the MET will not import less water from the delta or the Colorado River due to the existence of the Poseidon Huntington Beach Desalination Plant (personal communication on 3/18/2013). As another example, Poseidon signed a contract with MET in 2009 that included a section stating that the contract would be terminated if MET is required…to reduce defer, or exchange entitlement to or reduce usage of Colorado River water, State Water Project water, or other supplies…as a result of expected or actual Production of the Desalinated Seawater by the Project(Section 13, pg. 21 of the Draft CSDP Agreement 70025). It is quite clear that any water Poseidon produces will not replace imported water, and Poseidon knows that.

Statement: “If the cost of imported water continues to escalate as it has over the past twenty years, then over the life of the desalination project, Orange County water ratepayers will see a net savings, not a net increase in their water bill.”

Poseidon, god of the sea.

Poseidon, god of the sea.

Fact: Such claims have been made for at least 12 years and have not come to pass and probably never will. In presentations by Poseidon in 2003, they estimated that the cost of imported water would equal or exceed that of desalinated water in the 2013-14 timeframe. Here it is 2013 and that has not come to pass. On the contrary the proposed price per acre foot for desalinated water for the Huntington Beach project is about $1,700 compared to $400 for our abundant Orange County groundwater, $700 for imported water and $800 for local recycled water. So even over time desalinated water has remained far more expensive than all other supplies and is likely to remain so. Poseidon’s present prediction for the imported = desalinated water cost equation is for 2024-25 timeframe. It is interesting that this water cost equation is always predicted 10 to 12 years out. You be the judge of who’s being factual.

Statement: “Enforceable agreements between Poseidon and the City of Huntington Beach guarantees that Huntington Beach residents will pay less for water then they would without the desalination project.”

Fact: Huntington Beach signed an “Owner’s Participation Agreement” (“OPA”) with Poseidon Resources that includes the discounted purchase of some desalinated water. However, the discount will only apply to the first 3 Million-gallons-per-day (Mg/d) of 10 Mg/d total and to an emergency supply for 10 Mg/d for 7 days. (NOTE: What constitutes an “emergency” remains unstipulated.). So Huntington Beach will pay full price for 70% of the water received from the project

Statement: “A recent negative campaign mailer circulated by opponents erroneously claims the project will add $5 billion dollars to local water bills over the next 30 years.”

Fact: Unlike Poseidon’s often fuzzy math , the No Water Deal With Poseidon mailer states the precise arithmetic it used to come up with the “$5 billion” figure. All the numbers were derived from Poseidon’s own term sheet for the purchase of water produced by its HB project plant. You be the judge of who’s being factual.

By the way, the No Water Deal With Poseidon mailer is not “anti-desalination”. It does, however, provide the facts regarding irresponsible desalination projects like Poseidon Resources has proposed for Huntington Beach.

No Water Deal With Poseidon

www.nowaterdeal.com

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Rebuttal to Poseidon Critics from Poseidon Resources, Inc: Huntington Beach Desalination Project

Rebuttal to Poseidon Critics from Poseidon Resources, Inc: Huntington Beach Desalination Project

Editor’s Note: Opponents of an ocean desalination plant (Nowaterdeal) proposed for Huntington Beach, California, recently launched a major campaign to block the project (here). Poseidon Resources created a response to some of those claims and is circulating it publicly. The Voice republishes it below. NoWaterDeal’s counter rebuttal can be read here. On Monday, May 6, the Huntington Beach City Council will consider a proposal (here) by Mayor Connie Boardman to recommended to the California Coastal Coastal Commission to deny the Coastal Development Permit for the project when it considers the project this summer.

Huntington Beach Desalination Project

Fact vs. Fiction

Opponents of seawater desalination are distributing a campaign mailer with misleading and factually incorrect claims about the Huntington Beach Desalination Project and the cost of desalinated water. This fact sheet corrects these erroneous claims.

Claim: “$5 billion dollars will be added to local water bills … These bills could total $8,500 for the average retail water customers over the next 30 years.”

Fact: This claim is factually incorrect. The cost of water from the desalination project is not additive, as the claim assumes. Drinking water produced by the desalination project will replace an equivalent amount of imported water into Orange County and thus eliminate the related imported water costs to the consumer. The claim above fails to take this fact into account. If the avoided imported water costs were taken into account, the $5 billion claim would be reduced by billions, potentially even more than $5 billion, in which case buying the desalinated water would result in savings to the ratepayers of Orange County. If the historical rate of imported water escalation is assumed for the next 30 years, purchasing the desalinated water would indeed result in significant savings1. Additionally, the $5 billion cost claim factors in an arbitrary escalation of desalination water at 3.5% annually and fails to account for available local water supply development financial incentives that will reduce the cost of desalinated water by up to $250 per acre foot or $14 million a year2.

1 6.4% = MWD’s Full Service, Treated Tier 1 Rate’s historical average annual rate of increase during 37 year period from 1978

– 2014.

2 $14 million = $250 per acre foot financial incentive x 56,000 acre feet per year produced by the desalination plant.

3 City of Huntington Beach Entitlement and Plan Amendment 10-001, approved September 2010

4 20 year period from 1993-2012 for CPI-U series identification numbers CUURA421SA0 & CUUSA421SA0 (All Items, Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County, CA)

5 Average Retail Electric Utility Prices, Industrial, as published by the CA Energy Commission

This claim is also factually incorrect as it pertains to ratepayers living in the City of Huntington Beach. As a condition to the permits3 issued by the City of Huntington Beach to Poseidon’s desalination project, the City, at its option, can receive up to 3,360 acre feet per year of desalinated water at the lower of a 5% discounted price off the rate the City pays the Municipal Water District of Orange County for imported water and the cost of the desalinated water. This means that when the desalination project comes online Huntington Beach residents will be paying less for imported water than they would without the project. This requirement will save the City’s ratepayers tens of millions of dollars over the 30 year term of the project.

Ultimately, the cost impact of integrating desalinated water will differ from city to city based on each city’s water supply mix and rate structure as well as the future escalation of imported water rates. However, the Huntington Beach Desalination Project will provide Orange County with a substantial supply of locally-controlled, drought-proof water. These are attractive characteristics that imported water simply cannot offer, given the current and future water demands, environmental concerns, pumping restrictions and threats on the State Water Project and Colorado River Basin.

Claim: The mailer applies an arbitrary inflation figure of 3.5% per year to the cost of desalinated water.

Fact: Poseidon expects the cost of desalinated water to escalate at 2.5% per year. Approximately half of the cost of desalinated water will cover capital costs and escalate at a fixed 2.5% per year. The remaining balance of the cost covers the operating and electricity costs of the Project. The portion of the desalinated water price that covers operating costs will escalate with the Consumer Price Index (CPI-U) for Orange County, which has averaged 2.4% per year over the last 20 years4. The portion that covers electricity costs will escalate with the applicable SoCal Edison industrial tariff rate, which has averaged 2.2% for the 20 year span from 1991-20105.

Claim: “No public subsidies for private profit”

Fact: Poseidon did not request and is not receiving “public subsidies” as part of the successful financing of its Carlsbad Desalination Project, and the company is not seeking public subsidies for its Huntington Beach Desalination Project. Public water agencies in Orange County that buy desalinated water are eligible for an up-to-$250 per acre foot financial incentive from MWD under its Seawater Desalination Program (SDP). This same financial incentive under MWD’s Local Resource Program (LRP) has been used to financially support the OCWD’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWR). The LRP is designed to foster the development of local water supplies that initially cost more than imported water supplies, and as such they reduce, not increase, water costs for Orange County consumers. Poseidon is neither a public agency nor an MWD member and is not eligible for the funds. MWD funding is subject to strict accounting and auditing measures, and the incentive funds are only available to the purchasers of water to offset predetermined costs.

Claim: “It’s just too risky … In Australia four of six desalination plants built since 2006 sit idle in stand-by mode.”

Scott Malonie

Scott Malonie, Poseidon Resources Inc., Vice President: Photo SCV

Fact: This reference to Australian and its desalination plants is misleading and not analogous to the Huntington Beach project. The regions in Australia where these plants are built experience up to four times the annual precipitation as Southern California and therefore do not need to import water like Orange County. As such, not all the Australian plants were built to operate on a base load capacity. Desalinated water is intended to meet a small portion of Orange County’s supply needs as part of its overall strategy to improve reliability through diversification of water sources. The Huntington Beach project’s maximum 56,000 acre feet per year capacity will be approximately 8% of Orange County’s total demand, so it’s only one component of supply designed to offset the need to import an equivalent amount of water that is subject to regulatory and environmental restrictions, making it less reliable. The Huntington Beach plant and its water reliability agreements will be structured such that the public agency customers will always need and use what the facility produces.

Furthermore, Poseidon alone bears the risk of permitting, development, financing, constructing and operating the Huntington Beach Desalination Project. The innovative public-private partnership structure that Poseidon proposes shields Orange County ratepayers from the risk of a failed financing, over-budget construction, or failure to produce water at the amounts specified in the agreements during operations. In fact, the public agencies purchasing the water would not pay for any water until the Project has been constructed and water has been received by the agencies meeting contractual specifications for quantity, quality, reliability and price.

Claim: Poseidon’s beach-front water factory will suck sea life into their intake pipes with the water, kill and puree millions of organisms, then pump out a briny stew and create a dead zone off Huntington Beach.”

Fact: The Huntington Beach Desalination Project will be located east of Pacific Coast Highway, over a quarter mile from the Pacific Ocean on industrial land behind the AES power plant. The desalination project has a certified Subsequent Environmental Impact Report and approved Coastal Development Permit from the City of Huntington Beach, an approved lease with the California State Lands Commission for use of the seawater intake and discharge facilities and a discharge permit from the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board. In issuing these permits and approvals each local and state regulatory agency determined that the project can be built and operated with no significant impacts to marine life or water quality.

In issuing its approval the Santa Ana Regional Board found that for the desalination project will impinge approximately 0.78 lbs per day of fish, a fraction (less than 25%) of the daily diet of one brown pelican”6 and the discharge from the desalination plant will meet all federal and state receiving water quality standards.

6 Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board Order No. RB-2012-0007, NPDES No. CA8000403; page F-33

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Posted in Headlines, Poseidon2 Comments

Bad Branding: Mesa Water District’s Marketing Scheme Backfires

Bad Branding: Mesa Water District’s Marketing Scheme Backfires

By John Earl
Surf City Voice
Analysis and commentary

Lately, the people who act like they own the Mesa Water District, namely its five-member board of directors, general manager, and communications manager, have been learning a hard lesson in democracy; that, no matter how much of the ratepayers’ money they spend to make themselves look good or how cleverly they spin their “unified message” to shield themselves from transparency by the water agency’s real owners (the ratepayers), their days of reckoning will come.

Since late 2008, Mesa Water has spent over $290,000 on a consulting firm that charged $265-$350 per hour, according to invoices, to help the agency create a new name and logo for itself (a process called re-branding) in order to “enhance Mesa Water’s visibility and positive recognition” and to create a “unified look and voice” among directors and staff.

Since Fiscal Year 2011, Mesa has budgeted $3,831,232 through FY 2014 ($1.4 million for FY 2014 is tentative) and has already spent an estimated $1,053,465 on its Strategic Communication Plan.

Final selection for Mesa Water District's new logo. Photo: Public Record

Final selection for Mesa Water District’s new logo. Photo: Public Record

Besides that, there is Mesa Water’s stash of rainy day cash, $22 million currently—funded by a 25 percent rate increase over five years that started in 2009—with plans to almost double that by 2016.

Against that backdrop, Mesa’s days of reckoning started to arrive about a month after its communications manager, Stacy Taylor, threw a private bash for VIPs (regular ratepayers not welcomed), meaning other water district officials, consultants, selected politicians, industry CEOs, and personal friends or family of Mesa’s directors and carefully selected members of the corporate press.

This reporter was specifically banned from the event for reasons that I will report on later. But I previously reported about the event as a likely illegal misuse of public funds (here) and I stood outside of the entrance taking photos and doing video interviews.

The private VIP party was to celebrate the recently completed $20 million upgrade of the Colored Water Treatment Facility now re-branded as the Mesa Water Reliability Facility. As Mesa’s PR team expected, the Daily Pilot and OC Register dutifully wrote glowing reports about the facility (here and here) without a peep about the arguably illegal misuse of $50,000 plus in public funds that were used for the private event.

Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Records

Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Records

To Mesa’s re-branding crew, the event was the successful result of years or work and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of Strategic Plan put to the test. Everything had been planned perfectly, right down to the invitations, valet parking, refreshments, musical entertainment and, most important, the press coverage.

What could go wrong now?

After all, the Daily Pilot’s coverage of Mesa Water never amounted to more than slightly rewritten Mesa press releases, exactly what you would expect from a local “throw away” paper.

And the Register, exposed by the Surf City Voice on several occasions (here and here) for its conflicted coverage of the proposed Poseidon desalination plant (a pet project of General Manager Paul Shoenberger and the Mesa board of directors), would publish the occasional perfunctory article on rate increases, grand jury reports, pension and salary issues, but had paid scant attention to Mesa Water’s numerous transparency problems.

But a local activists (read here), growing in number, are upset by the lack of transparency among Orange County water districts in general and in particular the dogmatic support by some of those districts, including Mesa Water, for the Poseidon ocean desalination plant proposed for Huntington Beach. They have been reaching out to voters, local elected officials and the media with their concerns.

They were inspired by the persistent watchdog activism of former Huntington Beach mayor Debbie Cook and the late Fountain Valley mayor Gus Ayer. And many of them resent the slanted and sparse news coverage by the Register and Pilot given to water management issues.

Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Record

Logo considered by Mesa Water District. Public Record

The Surf City Voice regularly covers “water boarding” in Orange County, including Mesa Water, and has been monitoring the branding issue since last summer when it was briefly brought up within a story (here) about attempts to discipline former Mesa director Trudy Ohlig-Hall.

Investigative reporters Nick Gerda of the Voice of OC online and David Nazar on Real Orange on PBS SoCal have also paid extra attention to water boarding shenanigans overlooked by the Register and Pilot. Earlier this month Gerda (here, here, and here) and Nazar (here) were first to report in-depth about Mesa’s huge cash build-up and its excessive PR spending.

Then the Register, trying hard to come out of a post 2008 recession/depression slump and to reverse its reputation as a do-nothing paper, published reporter Mike Reicher’s story on April 12 ridiculing the MWRF party and exposing Mesa Water’s branding program.

Noting the event’s over all costs, including $1,500 worth of cookies shaped like water drops, Reicher wrote that, “Last month’s unveiling of a revamped water filtration facility is just a small example of Mesa Water District’s lavish spending on marketing and communications.”

Reicher’s story pointed out that Mesa’s PR/marketing budget is ridiculously high compared to other similar sized or even much larger Orange County water districts. Mesa’s extra cash reserve and the relatively high salary paid Mesa’s Communications Manager, Stacy Taylor, were also reported and the usefulness of the branding program was questioned.

Logo considered by Mesa Water for "rebranding." Public Record

Logo considered by Mesa Water for “rebranding.” Public Record

What really got the latest round of extended news coverage of Mesa Water out of the starting gate, however, was a guest commentary published (here) March 27 by Jay Litvak, husband of Glynis Litvak who had recently resigned from her position in Mesa’s finance department amidst a grievance process she had officially started against her boss, Paul Shoenberger.

Considering Mesa Water’s strenuous efforts to raise its PR profile in the water community and to make itself look good, as well as the massive build up of unrestricted and non designated cash, Litvak wondered if the agency was trying to make itself look good to a potential buyer—which could lead to its privatization and immunity from California’s open meeting law, known as the Brown Act.

The question stirred up a hornet’s nest and got a quick response from readers, including a defensive response (here) from Howard Hull, a political crony of Mesa Water’s current president, James Fisler, but it has yet to be answered by Mesa Water or the press.

Litvak’s commentary in the Pilot was an open invitation for the paper to be the first to expose Mesa Water’s budgetary peccadilloes in-depth. The Voice of OC and the Register took Litvak’s bait but the Pilot remained grounded, however.

Instead, the Pilot’s coverage of Mesa Water’s latest scandal (here) was reduced to a roundup of the superior news reporting provided by its competitors, a roundup that nonetheless revealed the paranoid and tortured rationalizations of Fisler in reaction to Mesa’s critics.

Mesa’s critics, he told the Pilot, come from a “small circle,” half of whom are outsiders. As for the district’s aversion to coming into the digital age of transparency with video and audio streaming of its meetings, Fisler must have had an incredulous facial expression when he said: “We don’t get any feedback from that. I don’t think we grow as fast from that.”

When a government body resorts to blaming outside agitators, it’s a sure sign of desperation and disconnect from its constituents. .

Native American entertainment provided at Mesa Water's private party, paid for by $50,000 of ratepayers' money. Photo: Mesa Water website.

Native American entertainment provided at Mesa Water’s private party, paid for by $50,000 of ratepayers’ money. Photo: Mesa Water website.

And Civics 101 tells us that the more hidden a government body is from public view (video and audio streaming could only broaden that view) the more likely it is to abuse its power.

Allow a government to stockpile large piles of unneeded and unrestricted cash behind a veil of secrecy – fortified with a perpetual propaganda machine – and it’s only a matter of time before the Bell starts ringing, and I don’t mean the Liberty Bell.

The main architect of Mesa Water’s risky quest for public greatness and influence is its General Manager, Paul Shoenberger. But Shoenberger almost always had five eager accomplices, without whom he could not have proceeded.

So, if Mesa Water’s multi-million dollar PR makeover continues to backfire, expect its elected herd of water buffaloes to do what any other semi-respectable elected political body would do to save itself– find a scapegoat and send him packing.

The way things are going now, Paul Shoenberger should probably consider himself re-branded.

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