Water utility proposes fee increases to fight historic drought
on November 10, 2014
For two years, dry winters turned to thirsty springs, reducing reserve water levels in the East Bay by one-third. The district currently has less than a year’s water supply, and the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) is preparing in case the rain doesn’t come again.
To encourage conservation and offset the costs of the drought, the utility is proposing tiered rate increases for households and commercial buildings. As the supply of water decreases, a surcharge will be added to the water use charges already on a consumer’s bill.
The average household will pay an additional $3 to $10 per month if the current plan is accepted, depending on the severity of the drought and the amount of water used.
If the drought continues and the water supply becomes extremely limited, an “excessive use” surcharge will be applied to households that consume over 1,500 gallons per day, which could result in an additional charge of $100 per month.
An appeals process will be available for people who believe they were unfairly penalized — for example, a single-family home with a large number of residents. Exemptions will also be made based on household income.
EBMUD board member Lesa McIntosh said they are taking special care to speak with the community before they make a final decision on the proposed plan.
“Until we hear from our ratepayers, we don’t know what course we’re taking,” she said. “We still have a month or two before it’s set in stone.”
The EBMUD proposal breaks the drought into stages based on severity. Currently, the East Bay is in Stage One of the drought, so water use reduction is voluntary and rates remain unchanged.
Depending on how much rain and snow falls in the coming months, however, next year the district may be forced to enter Stage Two of the drought plan, and an additional 14 percent surcharge will be added to the volume charge, or the charge per unit of water consumed. A unit of water is 748 gallons.
If the weather stays continually dry, EBMUD will enter the final drought stage, color-coded in red: Stage Four. At this stage, a 25 percent surcharge will be added to all water-volume charges, and an “excessive use penalty” will go into affect. The excessive use penalty charges $2 per unit of water to households that use over 1,500 gallons of water per day.
Most households use about 250 gallons daily.
EBMUD board members said consumers in the East Bay have responded well to water conservation requests over the years. They said water usage is at an all-time low this year after residents surpassed the voluntary 10 percent reduction in water use requested in February.
Still, despite the drought, green lawns that need constant watering abound, and older homes most likely need plumbing updates. Leaky water pipes are a leading cause of water waste.
In a drought of this severity, the fear is that voluntary reductions won’t be enough to dramatically change people’s water use. EBMUD officials hope the increased rates will not only encourage residents and businesses to conserve more water, but will also defray the financial toll of the drought.
The drought puts EBMUD in a tricky financial situation. As the community responds by conserving water, EBMUD receives less money from its water unit charges. Conservation is great for preserving the water supply, but not so great for the utility’s coffers.
EBMUD may also be forced to purchase supplemental water from the Sacramento River system next year, and at much higher price. The drought stages and tiered rates are linked to how many acre-feet of supplemental water the district is forced to purchase.
Almost all of the utility’s water comes from the Mokelumne River in Amador County. It’s captured nearby in the Pardee Reservoir and then flows 90 miles west through aqueducts. The reservoir’s water levels depend on snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada mountain range.
Despite the grimness of the drought, compared with much of California, the East Bay has managed to maintain a relatively secure water supply. Although its reserve levels are below average this year, the EBMUD system is still at over 50 percent capacity, while most other reservoirs in the state are below 25 percent.
Board member William Patterson said that lessons learned from previous droughts have made the utility forward-thinking and nimble. He said EBMUD’s focus on conservation has prompted residents to “effectively reduce water consumption.”
“We, unlike other districts, still have water,” he said.
EBMUD will hold one more public meeting before it votes on the proposed plan December 6.
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