Rates on the Rise: The Coachella Valley Water District Decides to Charge Residents More; Is the Desert Water Agency Next?Written by Kevin Fitzgerald
So far this year in the Coachella Valley, water-rate increases have gone into effect in both the Mission Springs Water District (encompassing Desert Hot Springs and northern Palm Springs) and the Myoma Dunes Water Company territory of Bermuda Dunes.
In both cases, mandatory public meetings were held—and citizens came out to protest what they saw as unfair increases.
On Tuesday, June 14, the latest domino to fall was the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), which provides water to most of the valley from portions of Cathedral City eastward. Its board of directors was holding one final public meeting on whether to approve the controversial rate-increase plans it had been proposing for more than three months. Various local media and an overflow crowd of more than 300 customers showed up for the meeting, held under the watchful gaze of armed members of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
As expected, the board approved the first step in a five-step rate increase plan … sort of: The members voted for a rate increase in volumetric charges, effective July 1, as well as a 44 percent increase in fixed-cost charges for customers effective from July through September, with a reduction to 22 percent beginning in October.
Or did they? Heather Engel, the CVWD director of conservation and communication, told the Independent after the vote that the increase would not be quite as steep.
“For our (single-family residential) customers, their fixed charge was going to go up (on July 1) from $7 to $11.30, but now, it will be $9.26 (a roughly 32 percent increase) as of Oct. 1” rather than July 1, she said.
She said it’s possible the board could further lessen that fixed-charge increase between now and October.
“It will be revisited (in September) to see if it can be adjusted down further,” she said.
As for the volumetric portion of the customer bills, the proposed increases were indeed adopted as proposed. (To review the final approved water rates, visit www.cvwd.org/ratechanges.)
With all of the local water districts, the rate-increase rationale begins with the revenue shortfall caused by successful conservation efforts. Another undeniable factor is the cost of maintaining and upgrading the existing water-management and delivery infrastructure.
But the wild card in each agency’s deck is the State Water Resources Control Board’s new Chromium 6 abatement regulations. After initially fighting the state-regulation terms that the agency viewed as onerous, the CVWD has now decided to move forward aggressively with plans to create and maintain a massive treatment infrastructure—at an estimated minimum development cost of $250 million, with ongoing annual maintenance costs of $8 million.
At least one local lawmaker thinks the CVWD should be pushing back against the state a little more.
“If I was in the CVWD’s shoes, I’d say let’s hold off a little bit,” said Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia. “Let’s maybe spend some money on doing some designing and some engineering, but let’s hold off a little bit to see if there’s any change (in the current regulations).”
Garcia said it’s indeed possible that those Chromium 6 regulations could be changed.
“Last year, we were successful in passing Senate Bill 385, which I co-authored. … The bill gave (affected) agencies a five-year variance to comply with the new standard,” Garcia said. “That meant three things from our perspective: (We can) continue to gather scientific information that would either support or invalidate the (Chromium 6) standard … and possibly challenge that standard; give agencies the time needed to plan, design and build the infrastructure needed to meet the standards; and allow time for specific legal challenges already under way to proceed and potentially change the direction or outcome of the new standards. … But (the CVWD is) moving steadfast, perhaps because they feel there might not be any changes, and I respect that outlook and the direction they are going in.”
Garcia said it’s also possible the CVWD could get financial help from the state.
“Another area we’re looking at is money made available in the water bond, Proposition 1. Specifically, it allocated $260 million for water grants and loans for public utilities, and for addressing infrastructure needs and what have you. These dollars were originally meant for smaller utilities, but we’re trying to see if utilities with a larger footprint could potentially be eligible.”
On a related front, during the June 14 meeting, board member Peter Nelson expressed a desire for the CVWD to join a lawsuit against the California State Water Resources Control Board, being led by the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, and the Solano County Taxpayers Association. It questions the need for the stringent drinking-water regulation of Chromium 6. The CVWD board has scheduled a closed-session discussion of this possibility for July.
Ashley Metzger, the manager of conservation and outreach at the Desert Water Agency, which serves much of Palm Springs and Cathedral City, defended the CVWD’s efforts.
“CVWD fought this (Chromium 6 regulation) tooth and nail,” she said. “They really put up a strong campaign against this standard being set so low.”
Metzger also offered a reminder for all local water-agency customers: “One thing that people often forget is we’re all public agencies. We represent them. We’re not for-profit. We’re different from Edison and SoCalGas, which are private companies. Everything we do is with our customers in mind.”
Is a water-rate increase coming to the DWA?
“We are doing a rate study right now,” Metzger said. “A whole host of factors will be evaluated. It’s a very comprehensive process. We expect to see the results sometime in late summer 2016.”