Lawsuit filed over identity of desert water customers

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This story has been updated.

A non-profit open government group has filed a lawsuit against two water agencies in the Coachella Valley. The group alleges the agencies are not being transparent about their customers’ water use.

Until this year, the Coachella Valley Water District and the Desert Water Agency listed their customers and how much groundwater they pumped in annual reports. This year, that changed. Both companies removed their customers’ identities, citing privacy concerns.

“We have both an obligation to the public to operate in a transparent way. There’s also an obligation to our customers to protect their private data,” said Katie Ruark, a spokeswoman for the Desert Water Agency.

Ruark said the state’s Public Records Act bars releasing the names of utility customers. A written statement by a spokeswoman for the Coachella Valley Water District mirrored the argument for privacy.

The First Amendment Coalition filed a lawsuit on Friday in Riverside County Superior Court for the information, arguing that privacy restrictions don't apply to corporate customers.

“The only people who could possibly see that as a reason to withhold this information to the public would have to be regulators who are captives of the industry they’re regulating,” said Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition. 

Ruark with the Desert Water Agency said no customers asked to have their names removed from the usage lists. She said that the timing of the decision to remove customer's information from the annual reports was coincidental to the severe drought afflicting California. And she added the agency would continue to report the amount of water customers pumped.

"To my knowledge, the drought was not necessarily a factor in this particular change,” Ruark said.

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