Dry California

To shield tech executives, California’s biggest water users are secret – Katharine Mieszkowski and Lance Williams

In the midst of a historic drought, Californians have no way of knowing who’s guzzling the most water.

That’s not an accident. It’s by design, thanks to an obscure 1997 measure that weakened one of the state’s chief open government laws, the California Public Records Act.

For the source of this legislation, look no further than Silicon Valley, where the city of Palo Alto decided it needed to do more to protect the privacy of the tech elite.

“Palo Alto, even then, was home to a number of very high-profile tech-­related residents,” said Ariel Calonne, who was the city attorney at the time. “We had fairly extensive databases that covered a lot of sensitive information for a lot of noteworthy people, and that became a concern for our utility managers.”

In the name of privacy and security, the city of Palo Alto backed legislation sponsored by Byron Sher, the local state senator. It allowed utilities to keep secret their customers’ “utility usage data” – that is, how much water and power they were using.

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