Rishi Kumar handed out stickers at San Jose City Hall proclaiming, “No more rate increases” – as he walked from row to row, person to person, answering questions and calling for action. This was at the outset of a California Public Utility Commission meeting in 2017 to discuss the water rate proposals of San Jose Water Company (SJWC). And that was the beginning of Rishi Kumar’s water activism that is ready to propel him to a seat in the United States Congress later this year.
Just a few months earlier, Rishi had walked into a hornet’s nest, meeting with an irate group of residents, who were upset with their elected leadership – including Rishi himself – about their increasing water bill. It was a difficult meeting, but Rishi wanted to hear it straight from the people. He walked away with a newfound resolve to take on the unique water situation that the community was reeling from, thanks to SJWC’s greed.
Rishi explained, “There are many seniors in our community who are house rich, but cash poor. They do not have a source of income and are at or below the poverty line. They were stressed out seeing their water bills and worried about their future. I decided to push back to protect their interests! That was the least I could do! Why did people put me in office – not to stand and watch, right? Challenges can be difficult, but as a tech executive I have never believed in giving up.”
Rishi defines his congressional run as a run for “ethics in politics” – always working for people, not the special interest groups. Rishi’s historic reelection to the Saratoga City Council in 2018 with the highest number of votes in 64 years of Saratoga’s election history is largely attributable to his willingness and fervor to tackle such tough challenges. Now he is in the midst of a relentless push for Congress against incumbent Anna Eshoo – the election is set for November 8, 2022. Eshoo is facing her toughest reelection challenge in 30 years – her primary election 2022 total was the lowest since she won the seat in 1992.
Recent polling conducted by the Kumar for Congress team shows Eshoo polling at a low 35% – a dramatic fall from her usual 72%. Rishi’s profile as an activist who always fights for the people has resonated deeply with people who look to their elected leadership to fight for them. And that Rishi does!
As a steadfast water activist and elected leader, Rishi Kumar has rallied the community since August 2016 pushing back SJWC’s frequent rate increase filings. SJWC is a public utility in the business of providing water service to approximately 231,000 connections that serve a population of approximately one million people. Their jurisdiction extends over 139 square miles in the metropolitan San Jose, California area that includes the cities of San Jose, Campbell, Cupertino, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno and Saratoga. Residents of these cities were furious with what was going on!
Rishi refers to his elected leadership role never about activity for the sake of activity, but always about tangible results. Rishi has proved it in this case and actually won many battles with SJWC: his efforts have resulted in NINE different rejections, reductions, or suspensions of the San Jose Water Company’s rate increase proposals. He is the only elected leader from six impacted cities who has stayed on task, pushing against the corruption of the system on behalf of the people for six years now. Over a million people have benefited from this, saving them hundreds of dollars a year.
To raise concern about this important issue, Rishi established a water information page and launched a Water Oversight Group, aimed towards communicating the facts with the people and, encouraging them to push back these water rate increases via a simple protest framework – a winning formula – that has been replicated again and again successfully. Following his triumph and rejection of SJWC’s proposed rate hike -Advice Letter 501, Rishi started filing a CPUC protest with every rate increase proposal that was presented by SJWC.
The water information page had the facts on each rate filing, along with email templates. Email addresses of CPUC commissioners were available, with Rishi’s activism propelling Silicon Valley residents to, send hundreds of protest letters to CPUC and Office of Ratepayer Advocates (ORA). To make the process more efficient, Rishi rolled out a mobile app to make protests easier, invigorating the flood of emails directed to CPUC and ORA.
Rishi’s central concern is with the profits that San Jose Water had derived from a burden imposed on the backs of the customer: “San Jose Water Company’s profits have skyrocketed. The ratepayers are feeling the burden of water rates 2x or 3x compared to other utility companies. Our ratepayers are furious! Emails I have received express despair and recounted a struggle to put food on the table, now exacerbated by having to figure out household bills while facing a huge increase in water bills. Here is a truly staggering number: $463 Million.
That is the profit San Jose Water Company has made in the last 12 years. Despite the community’s efforts to reduce water consumption, the water bills have not gone down; in fact, SJWC only continued to raise water rates. The drought surcharge has been hugely profitable. And the frequent rate hikes are exorbitantly high.” Rishi has pushed for greater transparency and oversight. “ I call upon the CPUC to push SJWC to display complete transparency about how the profits of SJWC have been spent so far for the purposes of infrastructure improvement, water quality requirements, and to address cybersecurity/data privacy projects. We need a thorough analysis of San Jose Water’s financial statements. ”
Rishi believes that these disastrous rate hikes are driven only by greed, and only wide-sweeping change can cement community water rights for good. He has called for the replacement of SJWC with a municipal water utility company as the way to escape these perpetual rate increases. “Water is going to be one of the most important challenges that Silicon Valley and many urban centers worldwide will be grappling with over the next few decades as the population continues to explode. The time to take control of our water resources is now! Water is a public asset and should be controlled by the community.
We currently have Silicon Valley Clean Energy (SVCE), a public sector entity not driven by profits, serving 12 Silicon Valley communities, providing an alternative to PG&E. All revenues generated by SVCE are returned to the program and passed on to customers in the form of reduced rates, local clean energy projects and customized programs and rebates. Will SVCE impose surcharges and try to make profits? No way! Why not create such a municipal utility water system that provides much needed local control of water? It makes total sense! Santa Clara and Palo Alto already have city owned and operated municipal water utility companies which are working very well for their residents, providing reasonable water rates. Why not a Silicon Valley municipal water utility company?”
It may not be easy, but it has proven successful before. A recent LA Times story referenced 235 cities worldwide — including major capitals such as Paris, Budapest and Buenos Aires — in 37 countries that have taken stronger or total control of their water systems in the last five years. In the U.S. alone, 58 cities have taken or retaken control of private systems in that five-year period, with the number constantly growing. The pace is accelerating, so why shouldn’t the ratepayers of SJWC consider these options?”
Rishi believes in a coalition between the various affected cities to address this water challenge for their citizens once and for all. “Nothing is more necessary to life than water. A few cities banded together and initiated Silicon Valley Clean Energy. Can we join hands again and launch Silicon Valley Water, a municipal utility company that has the interest of its residents in mind? Yes, I truly believe so”.
Rishi believes that an elected federal representative should always fight for the people. “All politics is local. While I will be addressing the national challenges in Washington next year, I will also focus heavily on rectifying the everyday angst of the people of our district. Yes – we need a plan for water infrastructure and to stem the tide on the water rate increases.
Eshoo’s campaign website does not address these issues or present a plan today for the future of Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley’s problems have simmered for decades – but there has been no plan or solution” Rishi has been unwavering in his dedication to the people’s interests, and nothing will sway him to choose special interests like SJWC over your interests. That is exemplified by Rishi’s track record and success. Perhaps this battle with SJWC for a million people of Silicon Valley will be the final piece of puzzle that lands Rishi this powerful seat as Silicon Valley’s first tech savvy congressional leader and a platform that he is very capable of harnessing as a game changer for the future of Silicon Valley.