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Calistogas Drinking Problem

Columnist: Christina Julian
March, 2018 Issue

Christina Julian
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Last year I received multiple notices that read: “Important Information About Your Drinking Water.” These notices detailed all the ways in which Calistoga drinking water is polluted. The data stings, but it’s not news. I’ve known our water stinks, metaphorically and literally, for years. Ever since I was pregnant with the twins, I’ve been unable to stomach the stench of our tap water. On a good day, it smells musty and moldy. On moderate ones, more like swamp water. And on the worst of days (often), poopy diapers.

I scan between all the techno-drivel in the latest memo, which is littered with phrases like: “water system violated a drinking standard.” Distilled—the Haloacetic Acids (HAAs) levels were above the maximum contaminant level. The irony that grocery stores all over the country sell Calistoga spring water at a premium, while most residents don’t drink the stuff, is not lost on me. This is not the first time Calistoga water has received failing marks, which makes me wonder why we can’t get this right?

The next missive reads: Prop 218: Notice to property owners of proposed water and water rate increases and public hearing proceedings. I scan this lengthy booklet and learn of potential water rate hikes, which if passed could mean beaucoup bucks stripped from my purse strings. It seems it might be prudent to strive for a year’s worth of “all clears” in the water contamination department before suggesting to pillage my pocketbook further. Sample rates for a proposed fixed-fee model are detailed, which could add up to more than a 50 percent hike (over the course of five years) in water and waste water rates, if approved. The document also announces a public forum for January, which I note on the books, to attend.

The week before the meeting, I get a visit from local resident, Yvonne Henry, who carries a stack of protest letters against the rate hike. She and several other comrades are canvassing the town leading up to a city council meeting, to collect signatures from homeowners against the increases.  We swap stories about our stanky water and I sign her petition.

Meeting attendees spill out of both sides of the Calistoga community center. City Manager Dylan Feik breaks out a PowerPoint presentation and tries to warm the crowd with pithy slides about suggested playlists, that are supposed to lighten the mood around the rate increases. While I could appreciate some of his song selections, I found the tactic irrelevant and irksome. As did the woman next to me who muttered, “get on with it,” more than a time or 10. When you tell me my monthly water bills are destined to double, I want stats and not sillies.

I try to parce out useful nuggets within his mountain of presentation slides. I like the factoid that explains how our water infrastructure is older than dirt, like 50-plus years in certain parts of the city, which might explain why our tap water smells like, well dirt. It’s also revealed that our water and waste water system has been operating at a deficit of more than $600,000 a year for several years. I’m not sure why this should affect my bottom line, but apparently it does. Many residents speak out against the hike, including Henry who suggests the council order each city department to make a 15 percent reduction in their budgets to offset the impact to residents.

Despite all the protests, in person and in writing, from homeowners (which in written form could have blocked the proposed rate increase), the debates ended when Michael Dunsford, vice-mayor, made a motion to close the public hearing, which was approved with a 3-2 vote. This despite the fact that more than 500 valid protest letters had been received before and during the meeting.

Another meeting came and went at the end of January. More public protest, especially around the fixed-fee model that many feel benefits large-use customers at the expense of small. Dunsford justifies the increases as a means for mitigating debt that began accumulating 20 years ago, when the city didn’t raise rates during an upgrade of the sewer treatment plant. As a new homeowner, I’m supposed to pay towards a debt that was dealt decades ago? This math equation, like all the algebraic formula’s that eluded me in elementary school, does not add up.

The meeting closed with the issue unresolved and residents unfurled. As I followed fellow townies out of the community center for rounds two and three of the water debate trials, I couldn’t help but to notice how many people steered clear of the water fountain and toted store bought bottled water instead.

After years in the technology and advertising trenches, Christina Julian traded city life for country and unearthed a new philosophy—life is complicated, wine and food shouldn’t be. Her debut novel, a romantic comedy called “The Dating Bender” is now available. Learn more at You can reach her at




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