Your Water Your Money

by Lou Binninger


            Incumbent Yuba Water Agency (YWA) director Charlie Mathews was interviewed recently on the Yuba Sutter Political Spotlight. It can be viewed on the Spotlight’s Facebook page.


            Mathews is an agri-businessman who operates a rice-growing and dryer operation based in Yuba County. YWA’s board is comprised of the five County Supervisors and two at-large citizens elected from North and South Yuba County. Mathews is in the North.


            Four years ago, Mathews’ concern was that the financial affairs of YWA were not transparent and therefore the agency was not answerable to the citizens of Yuba County. If people are not fully informed of the workings of the agency they cannot have an educated response according to Mathews.


            In his first campaign, Mathews also worked to put an initiative on the ballot to distribute some of the agency’s funds more equitably among other water agencies and farmer/water pumpers (beneficiaries from selling water). The initiative was blocked from the ballot by a YWA legal move undermining any opportunity of the voters to have a say in how YWA revenues were spent.


            Recently, Mathews and former Marysville City Councilman Dale Whitmore recommended a plan to clean-up Ellis Lake using Yuba River water that would eliminate the long-standing algae problem caused by pumping mineral-laden ground water. The two men offered to pay (Mathews $10,000 / Whitmore $1,500) to restart and operate an existing pump located at the Yuba River.


            Mathews was critical of a nonsensical plan devised by EKI Environment and Water who he believes conducted a flawed and biased study favoring placing 25 aerators in the lake bottom and treating the lake with chemicals. EKI’s nearly $700,000 project would not clean the lake enough for any water contact by people.

            The Mathews – Whitmore plan would be practical and inexpensive since the Yuba River water is free and the lake would function like a natural lake with an inlet and outlet of river water. Unfortunately, the city council is going forward spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for the EKI contraption.


            Mathews’ interview on Facebook is an opportunity for some insight into the inner workings of YWA that are normally sheltered from the public’s view. Charlie’s farmer/citizen/businessman perspective has disrupted a board that tends to always agree with its director.


WW II Army General George S. Patton liked to say, “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.”

Mathews said that for ten years the agency board had two members elected from an advisory council made-up from local water and reclamation districts, utilities and municipalities for two-year terms rather than two at-large community members. The former approach offered the board a higher level of water and flood control expertise.

The change to at-large members eliminated the expertise and substituted another political job for ex-supervisors who had the name recognition to get elected by the voters.


Mathews said when he was elected YWA had about $50 millionin the bank and while on the board YWA has made $55 million in loans and grants. Now, there is $150 million in reserves.


However, Mathews says the board still is not transparent. It gives money away via a 3-person pod committee that meets on Thursday with a final board vote on Tuesday. Mathews says the pod recommendations are “rubberstamped” by the YWA board without any public input. He thinks it is a rushed and not properly vetted approach.


Mathews contends that citizens and other elected officials need to have more of a say in how millions of dollars are distributed. He reports that before he came on the board YWA funds were being poorly invested with half its revenue sitting in a no-interest checking account and the remaining monies earning just 2% interest. Mathews feels that today YWA is doing a better job earning interest on its funds.


Mathews’ view on YWA being awash in millions of power and water sales dollars is – “When you have extra income, it’s hard to be frugal. But just because you have extra income it does not give you the right to not be frugal.”


Mathews wants “every decision to be business-based” and he is not convinced that is occurring. He wants YWA directors to be more responsible stewards for Yuba County citizens.


Regarding his “Your Water Your Money” campaign slogan, Mathews said when he ran four years ago, YWA directors thought that it was “their water and their money.” He believes “the culture still needs changing.