Governor Brown signs new law to protect water consumers

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THERMAL — Gov. Jerry Brown announced Tuesday signing into law new protections that cover more of the state’s water customers. The move was spurred locally by residents at Sunbird, a large mobile home park in Thermal, who spent years contesting their “unconscionably high” water rates.

The new law, AB 1830, ensures the same protections to mobile home park residents who buy water from private wells on-site as those who get their water through a public utility.

It comes after the California Public Utilities Commission unanimously ruled earlier this year that Sunbird’s rates were indeed “unjust and unreasonable” —but also that the commission lacked authority to reimburse those customers because they got water from a private well.

Despite the new law’s signing, Sunbird residents won’t be able to recoup their overcharged costs. However, the measure aims to prevent other mobile home park residents from facing similar problems in the future.

It was authored by Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, a Coachella Democrat. “I’m just happy. I’m especially happy for the people who led a grassroots effort out of Sunbird mobile home park,” Pérez said Tuesday. “I think it’s a victory not only for Sunbird” but also other mobile home park water customers across of California, he added.

In 2009, Lucas D. Hernandez, then a 90-year-old park resident, and 29 other residents, filed a complaint with the PUC arguing Sunbird’s manager, Laguna Beach-based Hawkeye Asset Management, charged “unconscionably high” rates that lacked “any apparent reasonable basis.”

The park’s ownership and management said the rates were needed to curb excessive water use by some residents that strained Sunbird’s septic system, resulting in expensive maintenance and repair

In 2010, several Sunbird residents traveled to Sacramento to testify about the problem before the PUC.

Then, at special state hearings held July 2011 in Indio, park residents further testified they had to pay exorbitant rates or face eviction, including one man whose monthly bill under the park’s tiered system was $1,235. An administrative law judge recommended new rates that would trim the average Sunbird water bill by almost half, and the PUC later upheld those rates.

The park, whose on-site well also tested for unsafe levels of arsenic, was connected to safe, clean CVWD water this past summer.

“I think it’s a really big step for mobile home park residents’ rights,” Megan Beaman, a Coachella-based attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance who represented the Sunbird residents, said of the new law Tuesday. “That case (before the PUC) was the only of its kind when it was made,” Beaman said.

Hernandez, Beaman said, was the grandfather of Coachella Mayor Pro Tem Emmanuel Martinez, who’s also a member of Pérez’s staff. Perez said Martinez was key to helping push the legislation forward. Martinez could not be reached for comment Tuesday. (Desert Sun, 9-26-2012)