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Executive Summary for January 13th

A $2 water rate increase in the city of Pasadena brings howls of protest, offering a fresh window on everything that’s wrong with paying for water service in California. And the state’s largest urban water wholesaler approves a new long-term supply strategy.

Published on Jan. 13, 2016 Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Pasadena’s $2 Water Rate Increase

The Pasadena City Council on Monday approved its first water rate increase in eight years. It was a modest increase — 7 percent for most residential water customers. This means monthly bills will increase a whopping $2.09, to about $30 per month.

“Our revenue is not what we expected,” said city water agency general manager of finance Shari Thomas, according to Pasadena Now. The rate increase is necessary, she said, “to maintain the City’s investment in its water delivery infrastructure.”

Yet the increase — roughly equivalent, for most ratepayers, to one cup of Starbucks coffee per month — brought howls of protest from ratepayers, including dozens of protest letters.

“We have been saving water as asked and do not think it is right to be rewarded with an increase in fees,” ratepayers Corbett and Laura Wilcox wrote to the city council. “Why don’t you contact Governor Brown and tell him to stop building that stupid (high speed) train and instead … put funds towards state water projects.”

Surely, the median income in Pasadena — around $63,000 per year — can absorb a $2 per month water rate increase.

Part of the need for the increase is that customers have cut their water use 21 percent, as required by the state to cope with the ongoing drought. This means less revenue for the state.

But the major underlying reason is that, for years — long before the current drought — Pasadena has not been collecting enough money from ratepayers to cover its basic system maintenance costs. Sadly, the city is not an anomaly in this regard. Many California water agencies have this problem.

One reason for this is that Proposition 218, approved by the state’s voters in 1996, makes raising utility rates very difficult and expensive.

Another is that most drinking water in California is delivered by water agencies overseen by city governments. Which means elected city council politicians have the final say, and they are notoriously sensitive to complaints by the people who elect them, no matter how unreasonable or uninformed those complaints might be.

Pasadena water managers projected the city will be running a $6 million deficit in its water budget this year without the rate increase. To cover deficits in recent years, the city has been drawing on bond funds and cash reserves — in short, depleting its accounts to make up for a lack of income.

Water rates should have been adjusted annually under the city’s financing formula. That wasn’t done. Rates have not been adjusted since 2008, largely because the city opted to go easy on customers during the recession.

The newly adjusted rates will restore revenues to where they would have been this year if rates had been adjusted annually as required. However, it isn’t enough to recover deficits that accumulated in all those prior years.

This means Pasadena, like so many other California cities, will continue to deal with crumbling infrastructure that will lead to burst water pipes and other emergencies.

Metropolitan District OKs New Long-Term Water Plan

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on Tuesday adopted a new long-term water management strategy to meet demand in the decades ahead.

The district is the largest urban water provider in California. It delivers water on a wholesale basis on about two-dozen retail water utilities in the Los Angeles-San Diego metropolitan region. So, where it goes on water planning, much of the state will follow.

The goal of the new Water Tomorrow plan is to maintain water supply reliability over the next 25 years. It proposes a mix of strategies, from acquiring new water supplies to capturing stormwater to recycling wastewater. Of course, it also calls for additional conservation to reduce demand.

“One of the major findings is that, without further regional investment, supply reliability could degrade to the point where the Southland could face mandatory cutbacks in eight of every 10 years by 2040,” Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said in a statement.

Among other things, the plan avows continued support for a controversial proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to build two giant water diversion tunnels under the imperiled Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Known as California WaterFix, the controversial $15 billion project would divert a portion of the Sacramento River’s flow into the tunnels in hopes of making water deliveries more reliable while also solving myriad environmental problems in the estuary.

The plan adopted Tuesday is just a framework. Additional actions are required to carry out specific investments in projects and to refine the responsibilities of Metropolitan’s member agencies.

Top image: A gardener mows a lawn in Pasadena, Calif., on Oct. 1, 2015. The city council approved a modest 10 percent rate increase on Monday amid howls of complaint from many residents. (Nick Ut, Associated)

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