Cost of Turning on the Tap to Go Up

Over the past 10 years, a customer of South Coast Water District heeded the district’s pleas about conservation, even changing the ground cover on her lawn and installing more efficient toilets. “And all the while the rates have been going up and up, and I don’t find that fair,” said the elderly resident at a hearing last week about a proposed increase in water rates.

“You ask me to reduce my water usage and then you jack my rates every year, and I’m saying enough is enough,” agreed Dana Point resident Terry Walsh.

If approved and rolled out over three years as planned, South Coast’s customers could see a 13 to 15 percent increase in monthly water and sewer bills and another 15 percent increase in the annual water and sewer service charges included in property tax bills.

SCWD, which provides water to South Laguna, Dana Point, San Clemente and San Juan Capistrano, will hold a final hearing and vote on the proposed changes at 6 p.m. on Thursday, July 25, in the Dana Point City Council chambers.

SCWD provides potable water and sewer services for the roughly 40,000 residents and 1,000 businesses. Their proposed rate increases, due to increases in the cost of imported water that accounts for 75 percent of the district’s supply, highlight the district’s vulnerability to factors beyond its control.

Laguna Beach County Water District, which supplies water to the rest of the town, is equally dependent on imported water. In 2010, the district imposed a two-tier rate structure, whose rates escalate annually through 2014.

South Coast’s website lists proposed rate changes and there is an online bill calculator to help families figure out how the changes will affect them.

“Three of us on the board are retired and on fixed incomes,” said board president Wayne Rayfield, responding to concerns raised at the forum. While sympathetic, water officials “need to be aggressive” in recovering rising costs in order to also maintain the district’s aging infrastructure, he said.

Higher rates are necessary, district officials say, to offset the rising costs of buying water; fund efforts to develop local sources, which include groundwater, recycled water and possible desalination projects; pay for infrastructure repairs; and maintain ongoing emergency preparedness and environmental protection efforts.

The district’s water supplier, the Metropolitan Water District, must absorb costly levee repairs for the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta and the Colorado River, which is experiencing a 12-year drought. Repairs and scarcity increase costs, which “get passed along to us in the cost of our water,” said Betty Burnett, SCWD’s general manager.

MWD forecasts charges to the district will more than double by 2016 to $984.85 per acre foot of water, enough to cover an acre a foot deep, from $431.50 in 2003.

South Coast plans to invest up to $50 million over the next 10 years, aiming to shrink imports to 35 percent of its supply, Burnett said.

Currently 15 percent of the district’s water supply comes from local groundwater, 10 percent from recycled water (for which they have 15 miles of pipelines and three storage reservoirs), and the remainder from imported water.

The proposed fee hikes will generate $4.4 million over three years, said Carolyn Rathbone, SCWD’s director of finance. In addition to paying for rising costs of imported water, revenue will help fund improvements and infrastructure, such as reconstruction of the tunnel built 60 years ago for the two-mile sewer line under the bluffs from Three Arch Bay to Aliso Beach.

“If imported water is so expensive, fine. Let’s not use it,” said South Laguna resident Penny Elia, during last week’s forum. She suggested more use of recycled water, such as switching out the potable water on Aliso Creek’s golf course, and cited Laguna Beach County Water District’s underwriting 90-gallon barrels for rain water capture. “Let’s get that purple pipe moving forward,” she implored, referring to the unique color of pipes carrying recycled water.

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