CITY HALL — You can lead a City Council to a water self-sufficiency plan but you can’t make them approve of rate increases.

Council heard two separate but related proposals about the future of water usage in Santa Monica on Tuesday night and liked one but not the other.

The first would penalize heavy water users —adding drought surcharges to residents and businesses that can’t reduce their usage by 20 percent from their 2013 levels. Residents would be allowed a threshold: 22 hundred cubic feet (HCF) of water every two months for single-family homes and 11 HCF for multi-family units.

A hundred cubic feet equals 748 gallons. If residents stay under those thresholds, even if they can’t reduce their totals by 20 percent, they won’t be hit by the surcharge, which, as it’s proposed, is relatively small.

Businesses would not be offered the same threshold but could apply for a variance.

The second set of changes included a proposal to increase water rates by 78 percent over the next five years. It would start with a 9 percent increase and jump by 13 percent in the following four years.

Water bills are lower in Santa Monica than in other local municipalities, city officials said. The current rates were established in 2008. The infrastructure and water mains are aging. It’s going to cost money to reach City Hall’s goal of water self-sufficiency by 2020. Currently, Santa Monica pumps some of its water in from the Metropolitan Water District (MDW).

For these reason, city officials said, they’re going to need more money coming into the Water Fund.

Some of the reasons for the proposed rate hikes are based on a study, by Kennedy/Jenks Consultants, which isn’t complete yet, city officials acknowledged Tuesday. They can have it done by council’s Nov. 25 meeting, they said.

“What I was expecting to hear in part from the Kennedy/Jenks study,” Mayor Pro Tempore Terry O’Day told city officials, “was that as a result of us decreasing our consumption in order to meet this self-sufficiency objective we would be decreasing the revenues to the city water department and that rates might need to increase as a result of that. But I couldn’t quite create that nexus in this report.”

Water Resource Manager Gil Barboa acknowledged O’Day’s point but noted that the study is very close to being finalized.

“That’s not in this staff report but that’s the direction we’re going in,” he said.

O’Day said he was disappointed that a sufficient case wasn’t made for rate increases.

“What are the strategies we want to use to accomplish this objective and based on those strategies what are the revenue requirements to invest in them?” he said. “Until we get to that point I don’t even know how useful it is to consider a discussion about rates. It’s simply too esoteric.”

O’Day and others expressed an interest in creating incentives for saving water, not just penalties for wasting.

Councilmember Ted Winterer agreed with O’Day’s points.

“I think we need to move quickly on the drought response but take a more measured approach to the rate changes,” he said.

None of the water measures that came before council on Tuesday were finalized. Drought surcharges would go into effect, at the earliest, in March. There will be public meetings and another council review before the measures are approved.

Rate increases were also projected to start in early 2015 but, with council’s criticisms, they could be delayed or abandoned.

Without any changes to the status quo, water rates would increase 13 percent over the next five years — 2.5 percent inflation increases each year.

dave@www.smdp.com

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