The water rate dilemma
There is a cloud of confusion surrounding a proposed rate increase for water users in Sonoma and some citizens are intent on inspiring a ratepayer rebellion to scuttle the increase. That’s an understandable reaction, but ill-informed and unwise.
Making sense of water rates is a challenge for anyone, and consumers can be excused for not having all the facts. A common reaction is that, while water users are encouraged to use less-and-less water, the price keeps going up-and-up. Use-less, pay-more is the cruel paradox of distributing a commodity that is in increasingly short supply. Water pricing doesn’t, and simply can’t, conform to the normal marketplace rules of supply and demand, wherein the lower the demand the lower the cost and vice versa.
That’s partly because delivery costs are fixed and if people are buying less water there’s less money to pay for the system.
In Sonoma’s case, the cost of our water – most of which comes out of the Russian River – is compounded by the condition of the delivery system, an aging collection of pipes first installed in 1963. While the city has water rights for 3,000 acre feet a year – or 6.3-million gallons a day during peak months – the system can’t deliver that much, and more storage will eventually be needed to cushion the city through dry periods.
Three years ago, during a critically low rainfall year, city water customers cut consumption by 17 percent, and another 10 percent of city supply came out of municipal wells. It was an impressive response to a water supply crisis. But there’s a limit to how much we can conserve and if climate change predictions are accurate, the crimp in the pipeline delivering Russian River water to our faucets and lawns could become critical
The city’s 2010 water supply plan and water rate study points out that critical questions about future dry-season supply remain unanswered and it estimates the cost of rehabilitating old wells, and developing new ones through 2019 at about $6.5 million.
A notice mailed to city water customers, explains that capital investment to replace existing pipes and water mains, maintain storage tanks and construct new wells over the next five years is $8.7 million, of which $6.3 million needs to be paid by customers. Amortizing that cost from 2013 through 2017 will require rate increases of 5 percent a year. That translates into new water costs of between $32 and $39 a year for the average single-family user.
There is a catch to the rate increase, however, that could torpedo the plan. If a simple majority of ratepayers submit signed, written protests, the rate increase will be rescinded. And if the rate increase is rescinded, the capital improvements will be cancelled or delayed and the chances for an acute water crisis in Sonoma will increase.
The Sonoma City Council will hold a public hearing on the issue during its regular meeting on Monday, Sept. 17. That will be a good opportunity for citizens to hear a detailed explanation of the reasons for the rate increase and to better understand the consequences if it is rejected.
We urge anyone concerned about water rates to attend.