Ten years ago, the average East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) consumer was paying $26.09 per month for water. By July 1st of 2014, that number will have nearly doubled to $48.60. The next two years alone will see rates rise 9.75 percent ($3.96 per month) in 2014 and 9.5 percent ($4.19 per month) in 2015.
At last week’s City Council meeting, Richmond resident Leonard Taylor complained about the hikes, saying he may have to stop doing his laundry and engage in only “weekend shower activities.”
“I know this was painful,” said Lesa McIntosh, EBMUD board member representing Richmond and West County. But, she says the water utility’s rates are still comparably reasonable, “Out of thirteen agencies [in the Bay Area], our rates are still lower than ten.”
EBMUD spokesperson Abby Figueroa cited an aging infrastructure, the rising cost of chemicals and a change in the agency’s financing, as the reasons for the rate hikes. “We’re moving to a pay-as-you-go system, which requires a bigger investment,” Figueroa said.
McIntosh said an additional factor is that people are using less water, and this has spelled a loss in revenue. Following a drought in 2008, “Those sales really never recovered, which in my mind is a good thing. People are starting to understand the need for conservation and are doing better at it,” McIntosh said.
“It’s one of those ironies that pervades the water world,” said Carolyn Remick, executive director of the UC Berkeley Water Center. “They’re spreading the costs over a smaller volume of water.”
Figueroa pointed to the water company’s system of tiered rates as part of a program to encourage conservation by discouraging waste.
Regulation and technology have also brought new costs along with cleaner water, Figueroa said. “We know more now. Ten to 30 years ago we didn’t know about many contaminants and couldn’t measure them.” However, Figueroa said there is the need “to balance what is technically feasible with the costs.”
As the cost of water increases, McIntosh said, large numbers of people will be affected. She said she is especially sensitive to the needs of Richmond ratepayers, “I was born and raised here. I have lifelong friends and family who are living on a fixed income.” McIntosh said that through aggressive leak detection, renewable energy projects, advanced uses of recycled water, and minimizing supply costs she thinks EBMUD can end this cycle of rate hikes.
“California is accustomed to unrealistically cheap water,” Remick said. There have been steeper rate increases in other parts of the country, “In reality, we are catching up to real costs. [Rates] can’t go up indefinitely, but we might see a shift where people come to expect more of their paycheck to go toward their water. The forecast for cheap water in the future does not look very good.”