FREMONT -- To celebrate its centennial, the Alameda County Water District is spending about $280,000 to publish two books on its rich history, just as it raised water rates for the 12th consecutive year.
The district board president said the expenditure is right in line with the agency's mission to educate the community about its valuable water resources. "People are always surprised to learn that ACWD is California's first and oldest county water district and it's the oldest government agency in southern Alameda County," said Paul Sethy.
But Fremont resident Eric Tsai sees things a bit differently. "It's a waste of ratepayers' money," he said, suggesting the district would do better spending the money on "replacing pipes or paying off its debt."
The district has assembled an experienced team to develop the books: It will pay $219,000 to the Water Education Foundation, a Sacramento nonprofit organization that specializes in state water issues and history, to produce the publications, and another $60,000 to Paul Piraino, the district's ex-general manager, to research agency history and serve as the main author. Piraino, a district employee for 27 years, receives an annual pension of about $250,000.
Formed in 1914, the Alameda County Water District today serves 336,000 people in Fremont, Newark and Union City, and has an annual budget of $119 million. It employs 238 full-time workers, whose future pension and health costs, estimated at nearly $130 million, are partly why the agency has raised rates each year since 2003.
Sethy said the directors purposely avoided throwing a party and rejected other wasteful ideas on how to celebrate the district's 100-year birthday. Instead, they chose to publish the books because they were the "most enduring contribution" they could make to the community.
"Around $2 billion has been invested in the district in the last quarter-century and to spend a tiny fraction of that to record the history is very important," said Sethy, a telecommunications executive.
The district plans to print 750 copies of the main book, which likely will be a 450-page, comprehensive history of the agency and the people who led its progress. The second book -- around 65 pages in a printing of 15,000 copies -- will lean heavily on photos to tell the story more succinctly.
"The shorter book is designed to be more accessible to the public," said Walt Wadlow, the district's general manager since 2009.
Agency leaders hope to complete the books by December and distribute them to schools, colleges and community organizations. Wadlow said he is not yet sure if they will be made available for sale. "We're still at the front end of this project," he said.
Piraino said working on the books has been a labor of love, because the district's origins "are a classic American story." It formed when a small group of southern Alameda County residents outmaneuvered powerful private companies that had been feeding the area's water supply to San Francisco and Oakland, Piraino said. "Part of the fascination for me is that, in the (district's) beginning, it was David fighting Goliath," he said.
Ratepayer Tsai offered what he said is a better idea for the centennial celebration: "If they have money to spend on books, they can always give that cash back to the ratepayers," he said.
Contact Chris De Benedetti at 510-353-7011. Follow him at Twitter.com/cdebenedetti.