The city of Los Angeles and the Metropolitan Water District disagree over whether the names and addresses of people and companies who received turf removal rebates from the MWD should be made public. The skirmish points to a growing debate state wide about whether water-related data should be more transparent.
The Metropolitan Water District spent more than $340 million on its popular turf removal program. After initially withholding the information, Metropolitan told the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power it intended to release first and last names of applicants and recipients of turf rebates, as well as specific street addresses, in response to requests made under the California Public Records Act.
As a result, homeowners and businesses that have received rebate money could find their data made public within a week.
“We believe this is public information because it involves the use of public funds,” said Bob Muir, with the Metropolitan Water District.
The City of Los Angeles has moved to prevent that information from disclosure. In a complaint filed last Thursday in Los Angeles Superior Court, city attorneys argued that they needed to protect DWP customers, and that releasing the information is illegal and possibly dangerous.
Lawyers for the city of Los Angeles argue that “[Metropolitan] did not give any notice or obtain consent from any applicant that in exchange for this government-funded money, the applicants agreeing [sic] to waive their right to privacy.”
But the drought may be changing what's in the public interest, and what people, and the law, think of as public and private.
"It’s a matter of great and grave concern and the scales tip increasingly and more and more decisively in more and more peoples minds towards access," says First Amendment Coalition lawyer Peter Scheer.
Media outlets, researchers and nonprofit organizations have sought data to further understanding and reporting on how Californians are using water. Around California, the drought has given rise to several efforts to reveal information in the last year:
- Critics of the Nestle Waters bottling plant in Sacramento have argued that its resale of municipal water is wasteful; public attention helped compel the release of how much water Nestle has used.
- The First Amendment Coalition sued the Desert Water Agency in Palm Springs last August and successfully negotiated the release of information on how much water its corporate customers were pumping from the local aquifer.
- But in the same case, the Coachella Valley Water District fought on, successfully blocking publication of water use data for major commercial users.
And drought has intersected with fracking, where nonprofits and journalists have sought disclosure of oil and gas activities that contribute to possible pollution of water supplies in Kern County.
Individual "utility usage records" have been protected since 1997 under an amendment to the California Public Records Act. But a bill now making its way through the legislature in Sacramento would permit anyone to see water usage for a business. "Unlike residential utility users, the privacy interests of industrial, institutional, and commercial users are not sufficient" to keep prying eyes out, write the authors of AB 1520.
Turf rebate information may be different than water usage data, points out Jon Kotler, a lawyer and instructor in media law at USC.
"I think this is an 'oops' as in 'Oops, we should have warned our customers,'" Kotler says. "I think DWP [and Metropolitan] should have warned customers that this information was probably in play as being public to people who ask for it."
Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir says the wholesaler is working on a legal response to LA's suit, and the court could hear the dispute between LA and Metropolitan by the end of the week.