Council Puts Off Decision on Water Rate Hikes Until May 25 – But They Seem Inevitable

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watersupplyFor Max Connor he bought a laundry business, The Laundry Lounge on Hanover Drive, two years ago and has worked hard to be environmentally responsible and as well as keep a local business local.  But as the city of Davis continues to put burdens on his business and raise his bottom line he finds it more and difficult to do so.

“I’m here to state my frustration as a small entreprenuer in Davis,” said Mr. Connor speaking before the Davis City Council.  “It’s harder to survive in this economy the more our bottom line gets raised by two years ago the same rates were raised for essentially the same reasons.”

As a resident of Davis, Mr. Connor expressed the desire to keep his business local and remain in Davis as long as possible.  At the same time, the costs of doing business keep going up.  “For me there’s no way if these things continue to raise, that I won’t be able to raise my prices which then affects the hundreds of customers that I have in town.”

Mr. Connor is not alone, many residents of Davis have expressed concern about the latest rise in rates, which are actually just the tip of the iceberg.  The city is looking at a very modest water rate increasse ahead of two possibly massive capital expenditure projects.

This year the sewer and water rate increase is rather modest and downgraded over what it had been projected to be.  For the average Davis resident, it might be around $3 extra per month between sewer and water.

According to the staff report, previously, in February staff had recommended a 6% sewer rate increase.  “With more updated cost data resulting from the George Tchobanoglous and Ed Schroeder Charrette process, staff believes a lower rate is sufficient and is now recommending a 3% rate increase,” the report reads.  “The recommended rate would increase the average single family residential account’s monthly rate from $41.10 to $42.33, $1.23 per month.”

That may be good news for the average ratepayer, but for someone like Mr. Connor it puts him in a difficult spot.  “I want to build a large and driving business and invest in more energy efficient equipment,” he said to council.   “We’ve looked at putting in a solar water heater on the roof of my business.  But the more these things happen, the more leery I am to continue to invest in my business at our current location.”

The real danger for Mr. Connor and many like him is what happens next year if the projected rate increases, even downgraded as they are, come to pass.  For the sewer rates, the projected increase is 3% this year, and 6% each of the next three years.  Moving the average families rate from $41.10 to $50.40.

The big blow comes on the water rate side however, where the modest 5% increase this year transforms to a 23% increase in 2011/12, and then 20% each of 12/13 and 13/14.  And the following year as well if previous projections hold.  That means the water rate nearly doubles from 2009/10’s $36.74 for the average single family residence to $68.62 by 2013/14.

For businesses like Mr. Connor’s, who relies on water to run his business, that kind of increase could have the potential to put him out of business.

John Munn for Yolo Taxpayer’a Association spoke out against the rate increases as well,  He pointed out that since 1980, Davis residents are paying around a 500% in water rates and a 1300% increase in all sewer rates over the same time.  He also pointed out that while water rates sent out to residents were monthly rates, that is not what people’s water bill is going to look like, as they are bimonthly bills and thus will be twice the rates noticed.  He said, “I know that’s just a technical detail, but when you look at your bill and then you look at your proposal there’s a difference there.”

He argued that the rate increases that we are proposing here are unsustainable.  He said that the total yearly sewer rate is around $500, not an insignificant figure.  “There’s going to have to be some really hard thinking about what the city can do,” he said, “to maintain affordability for its residents.”

The pleas of residents and business owners like Max Connor however have only fallen on deaf ears from council.  In fact, they inspired a long and lengthy lecture by Councilmember Stephen Souza and to a lesser extent Don Saylor.

Mr. Souza’s explanation was that the council’s hands are tied by decisions made by the Federal Environmental Protection Agency laid down to the State Water Control board.  These regulations, he said, “require us to get rid of the salts in our water.” 

“We have to,” he said emphatically.  “Otherwise we face the similar situation that the city of Dixon faced, $10,000 a day fine if we don’t comply with the necessary requirements that have been laid down to us that grant of the permitting capacity to discharge our water into the environment.”  He continued, “That’s just pure plain and simple facts.”

He argued that we could lobby to have the standards lowered a bit to permit us to purchase less in the way of summer Sacramento River water, however, as Councilmembers Sue Greenwald and Lamar Heystek pointed out continually, the bulk of the cost is not for the water rights but rather the capital improvement project.  They pointed out repeatedly that conservation, which was a word bandied about, is not a solution to this problem.  In fact, because the capital costs are fixed, conservation would just lead to more rate hikes, ironic as that might seem.

Councilmember Souza agreed that we have to have this discussion.  “The community,” he said, “I believe the community still isn’t engaged in this.  We have not made it to the point where we can make the connection between surface water and wastewater.  We need to make that connection.”

Mayor Pro tem Don Saylor also lectured the public.  “These rates are a reasonable way to capture the costs we are going to incur and experience during the next year,” he said. 

He continued, “The rate changes that we have now, need to go forward now.  It’s a process that’s been underway for some time and in order for them to be effective in August, it is my understanding that this is the time when we need to make that adoption.”

“Here are the challenges,” he said, “We have costs, it’s a city service, it’s not free.  It’s not a matter of us making choices that we want to charge people more money for some purpose.  The idea here is pretty strong, delivering water and taking wastewater away and taking garbage away costs money.  And it’s costing more money and will in the future primarily because the standards changed and the water supply is lessening and becoming less quality.”

Mr. Saylor went on to argue, “The ground water that we get from our 22 wells does not meet the discharge requirements that we’re required to achieve for our wastewater so we have to treat the water before we can discharge it under the requirements of our permits to a level that exceeds [he almost laughs] the standards that the water that we drink – the water that we get out of the ground comes with.”

He goes on to suggest, “This thing is crazy and silly and weird but it the law.  And as Mr. Souza described if we violate that permit, we will be fined.”

Councilmember Lamar Heystek proposed that the council wait until May 25, just before the June 1 deadline to continue community discussion on these matters, but it is clear that there are three votes to eventually put the rates into effect.

Thanks to the perisistence of Councilmember Sue Greenwald, whose efforts were acknowledged by colleagues, the city is probably incurring a good deal less in the way of expense on the capital improvement projects, still one has to wonder if it really had to be this way.

More concerning is what happens to businesses like Max Connor’s that use water for their livelihood and operate on the margins as well as individuals such as senior citizens and other vulnerable residents on fixed income who will have to somehow find a way to absorb significant annual increases in cost.

Will this end up pricing people out of their businesses at a time when Davis is desperately looking for local start ups and a renewed tax base?  Will this price seniors and others out of their homes?  What is the council prepared to do about these kind of byproducts of their policy?

The answer for this was not forthcoming in the lectures given by the Mayor Pro or Councilmember Souza, but perhaps they should have been.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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22 thoughts on “Council Puts Off Decision on Water Rate Hikes Until May 25 – But They Seem Inevitable”

  1. E Roberts Musser

    DGM: “Will this end up pricing people out of their businesses at a time when Davis is desperately looking for local start ups and a renewed tax base? Will this price seniors and others out of their homes? What is the council prepared to do about these kind of byproducts of their policy?”

    Very good questions – which the CC majority has failed to answer. And I believe the rate increases are going to be far greater than what is being projected currently.

  2. E Roberts Musser

    rusty49: “I think due to the economy and budget problems with most cities the EPA should delay implamenting their water measures.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more!

  3. Don Shor

    “the EPA should delay implamenting their water measures.”
    But they won’t, so that is irrelevant to the current situation.

    Souza and Saylor explained the situation very well. Rates will go up no matter what (the operating costs seem to be the primary reason at the moment). The water system is necessary and will probably forestall the additional cost of waste water treatment.

    “Will this end up pricing people out of their businesses at a time when Davis is desperately looking for local start ups and a renewed tax base?”
    No. and I say that as a fairly large water user.

    “Will this price seniors and others out of their homes?”
    No, this is inflated rhetoric. But if the council wishes to make the fee system more progressive, they can do so. No councilmember has, to my knowledge, advocated a steeper tier system for the new fees based on water usage. They could do that.

  4. roger bockrath

    So let me see if I have got this right. The feds are telling us that the water we pull from wells for drinking and cooking is not legal to discharge because it has “high” levels of naturally occurring minerals and chemicals that accumulate while it is being naturally filtered and purified under ground. It’s OK for us to drink boron or selenium or whatever it is that they have a problem with, but it’s not OK to run it down Willow Slew along with all the ag. pesticide and soil fumigant runoff that makes it’s way to the Sacramento River. So instead, we are going to pump that pesticide laden water from The River and pay to clean up the ag. waste before we can drink it.

    Seems to me that if the feds want our waste water to have a lower mineral content than it did when nature delivered it to us that the feds ought to be paying for that process.

    The threat of a $10,000. daily fine rings hollow. Most of the municipalities in California have been out of conformity with the Landfill Reduction Act, (which I helped get instituted), since 2000 and I don’t see anybody collecting fines from them. You can’t get blood from a turnip. And most municipalities in California are sprouting turnip greens! What are the feds, via the state of California, going to do if municipalities join together and simply refuse to go along with the program? Enough with the unfunded mandates. California is broke. We can’t afford to do this. Period.

    So, quite frankly, I think it’s time to tell the feds to piss off! Maybe they need to reduce the obscene sums of our money diverted to military contractors to protect the profits of those trying to get every last drop of oil squeezed out of this planet, and spend a few bucks on things that actually benefit the folks paying taxes.

    Is the City of Davis in contact/co-operation with other municipalities faced with the same unfunded mandate? Has anybody even suggested that we Just Say No to multi million dollar unfunded mandates of questionable value?

    Looks to me like Council co-operation with this scheme to import river water has very little to do with water quality and everything to do with making water available for large scale development, at rate payer expense.

  5. rusty49

    Roger, I couldn’t have said it better, really, I couldn’t have. I’m sure many here will agree with me on that. LOL

    I just don’t see why we’re going to gouge the people for some EPA mandate that we all know is going to do squat in the overall scheme of things.

  6. Don Shor

    “The threat of a $10,000. daily fine rings hollow. Most of the municipalities in California have been out of conformity with the Landfill Reduction Act, (which I helped get instituted), since 2000 and I don’t see anybody collecting fines from them. You can’t get blood from a turnip…”

    Fines have already been levied against the City of Dixon, which is operating under a Cease and Desist Order to comply with effluent requirements. The EPA establishes the limits, the state of California issues the regulations, and the Water Quality District enforces them. Attempts to get legal exceptions have not, to my knowledge, been successful. Very few legislators are likely to get on board with the idea of voting to relax water quality standards, and I doubt if the City of Davis wants to pursue that approach. The residents of Dixon voted to reject the sewer rate increases, thus the city remains out of compliance and cannot afford to go forward. The voters’ decision could prove very costly in the long run.

    If you read through the documentation in the Dixon case, you will see that the Water Quality Board is trying to make sure that high-salt water doesn’t adversely affect the groundwater of nearby properties. A number of strategies have been suggested, including banning water softeners. But the gist of it is that if the water going into the system is high in salts, and then additional contaminants end up in the waste water as it is used, it is very difficult to meet the water quality standards. If the water going into the system is clean, such as would be achieved by augmenting Davis water with Sacramento River water, then the effluent problem is eliminated.

    David has been consistently opposed to this water project and to any water/sewer rate increases. Various blog posters have opposed the rate increases. But none have stated what they would do to bring the city into compliance. Sue Greenwald called for additional hearings and outside expert advice. Those experts, to summarize, agreed that the new water plan would take care of the water treatment issue for Davis. Her pressing of that issue probably saved the city millions of dollars. The net conclusion: move forward with the project, together with Woodland.

    Replacing our existing, aging wells will cost money; more if the water project stalls, less if it goes forward. The ongoing costs of maintenance will require fee increases no matter what else is done. A new water system will cost money. Davis presently has moderately low water and sewer rates. The fee increases are, indeed, inevitable. The only question is how they will be structured and how soon they will be implemented. All of this carping from the sidelines ignores a number of pressing issues. Even the council minority has apparently recognized the reality, since I haven’t heard any clear opposition to the project since the experts presented their report.

  7. roger bockrath

    Don, Thanks for the historical information on the river water import issue. I don’t live under a rock and yet much of what you tell us is news to me. If the city expects folks to pick up the tab for these improvements it would behoove them to do a much better job of keeping taxpayers informed. Does the City of Davis have a source available to citizens , especially those of us who do not have a Phd in water quality, why these salt reductions are so important. I,m pretty well versed on environmental issues and, for the life of me , I can’t figure out why dumping water with a slightly elevated salt content into the Sacramento River fifty miles upstream of San Francisco bay is some kind of environmental disaster. I always kinda thought that salt just naturally moves from mountains to oceans. If the feds want pristine water going down the Sacramento River, they could get a lot more bang for our buck by reducing allowable pesticide runoff from ag. land.
    .

    It is not reasonable to expect taxpayers to fund a new wastewater treatment facility, and then come back in just a few years and up the standards, requiring us to build more infrastructure when we haven’t finished paying for the last set of new standards yet. If you or I ran our business that way we would be out of business very quickly.

  8. roger bockrath

    Don/ David/anybody,
    Is there a link where I can look at the “expert’s’ report? I would be interested to see just how salty Davis water is coming out of the ground and just how salty it becomes before is is discharged. Could it really be that much more salty than what is already flowing down the Sacramento River at the point of discharge?

    Has anybody studied the feasibility of softening Davis water at the storage tank instead of in each home as a method of reducing salt levels in discharged water. It’s my understanding that there are some pretty cool technological improvements for removing calcium from water that have become available. This may prove to be considerably less expensive than importing from the river.

  9. Don Shor

    What I was referring to above was specific to Dixon, but is also a general issue with Davis water, There are also issues with current and expected water quality standards for drinking water. There is a great deal of information at the city web site, http://cityofdavis.org/
    There have been numerous analyses over the years (I’ve been discussing this project casually with city water folks since at least the mid-1980’s). Several councils have voted to move the project forward at various stages.
    Here is one example of information on the city web site regarding water quality issues:
    http://cityofdavis.org/pw/water/watersupply/index.cfm?topic=3
    Scroll around and you’ll find more info there.

  10. E Roberts Musser

    The real issue here in a nutshell is as follows:
    Back in the 1970’s, the feds passed new water quality standards that kicked in recently. Because of this, suddenly the City of Davis (and other municipalities throughout the nation) was faced with the necessity of upgrading its sewer plant, so that the water discharged would meet the new water quality standards passed back in the 1970’s. At the same time, it was also clear our water supplies were insufficient, bc the underground aquifers we draw from are dwindling/wells going dry have to be retired. Hence the need to import surface water from another source – the Sacramento River. But that meant paying for two huge capital projects at the same time, meaning your water/sewer bills would probably have gone up fourfold.

    This does not even take into account the aging sewer/water infrastructure, which needs ongoing upkeep and maintenance. Sue Greenwald wisely pushed for implementing one capital project at a time in Davis, rather than both, recognizing that taxpayers can’t pay for both in light of the huge rate increases it would have required. She pushed for two UCD experts to give some alternate solutions. The two experts suggested going forward with the surface water project that imports cleaner water that may not have to be treated as much after use, start a conservation program, and between the two perhaps the wastewater treatment plant could be postponed or at least significantly scaled back.

    So the surface water project is moving inexoribly forward, a strict conservation program will be started, in the hopes that an extensive new wastewater treatment plant will not be needed, or can be scaled back to be much cheaper and smaller, or at least delayed longer until after we pay for the surface water project. Much is sheer guess work – but the bottom line is the new water quality standards have to be adhered to, or federal fines are imposed at $10,000 a day, and the feds seem to mean business.

    All we can do is encourage conservation, keep reminding our political leaders to keep costs down as much as possible, but the juggernaut is already in motion for the surface water project – UNLESS THE FEDS RELENT ON IMPLEMENTING THEIR DRACONIAN WATER QUALITY STANDARDS COME HELL OR HIGH WATER. My fear is the results of implementing the new draconian water quality standards may hit many cities so hard financially, the results will be unintended and catastrophic, especially for those citizens on low or fixed incomes and cities on the brink of financial ruin. How do the feds enforce new water quality standards on cities that are literally going broke/facing bankruptcy?

    The water/sewer rate increase issue is far more complex, but those are the bare bones. Someone can correct me if I have got anything wrong, or add details I might have left out which may be of importance for a better understanding of this issue.

  11. David M. Greenwald

    Now here’s the part you are missing, once the decision to go ahead with the capital project at a given scope was made, conservation no longer represented a solution to that equation or to the rate hikes. It’s a solution to other things, but the costs are fixed and those costs must be paid for through the rate users. That means that counter-intuitively the less we use, the more we have to pay per unit.

  12. dina2901

    Will this end up pricing people out of their businesses at a time when Davis is desperately looking for local start ups and a renewed tax base?

    Answer: YES!!! As a local small business owner, when the costs of doing business skyrockets, I am forced to raise my prices or leave town. Either way Davis residents who are my customers are affected.

    Please sign our petition to “Just Say NO!” as Roger put it (comment above)
    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/1/dont-raise-water-rates-in-davis-ca/404706957/taf

  13. Don Shor

    “dont-raise-water-rates-in-davis-ca”
    What is your alternative? To just oppose an increase in water/sewer rates without explaining how you suggest that Davis resolve the water quality issue is not very useful.

  14. David M. Greenwald

    One question I would like to ask Sue on the dais would be, has the city done everything it can, has it considered all the options? I suspect her answer will be no. One option could be a waiver. Another could be a lawsuit. Yes, a lawsuit would be costly, but less costly than the project. I’m still not convinced that the water project solves the problems, that we would actually get the water that we need. What happens if river water is not available during summer, does the city get discharge fines?

  15. roger bockrath

    Thank you Don and Elaine for helping me get up to speed on the proposed water importation issues. I followed Don’s link to the City web site and was impressed with how incredibly basic the information was.

    Under proposed objectives they cited a survey/study that had concluded that Davisites are paying “up to” $200. Per year in hidden costs associated with our hard water. But as far as I can tell there is no link to that study/survey.

    Also, under Alternatives, no consideration is given to the use of at tank treatment with removed calcium being dried for disposal instead of put back into the effluent. I am left with the impression that whoever wrote the draft proposal (staff?) had their mind set on importation and was not looking for less expensive alternatives

    Unless somebody can show me extensive City research on alternatives to importation I will be convinced that water importation has been adopted without much consideration to alternatives. That makes investing my tax dollars on importation anything but a done deal.

  16. roger bockrath

    p.s. When I sent an email to the link posted on the city site for further information, water@dcn.davis.ca.us I got a failure notice. Anybody know where I can go to get more detailed information of studies which back up the councils decision to import water?

  17. E Roberts Musser

    rb: “Unless somebody can show me extensive City research on alternatives to importation I will be convinced that water importation has been adopted without much consideration to alternatives. That makes investing my tax dollars on importation anything but a done deal.”

    Actually, two UCD experts suggested by Sue Greenwald looked at the problem, and did offer some alternatives – but concluded the surface water project should be done first, and done now as the most efficient course of action. Their report should be on the City of Davis website, but if not, ask Sue Greenwald about it.

    DMG: “Now here’s the part you are missing, once the decision to go ahead with the capital project at a given scope was made, conservation no longer represented a solution to that equation or to the rate hikes. It’s a solution to other things, but the costs are fixed and those costs must be paid for through the rate users. That means that counter-intuitively the less we use, the more we have to pay per unit.”

    But water conservation will save money on sewer rates, no? It may not save money on the surface water project, but it may obviate the need for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade, or at least significantly decrease its costs. This is an important concept to remember…

  18. Don Shor

    “…but it may obviate the need for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade…”
    I see no particular reason to believe that would be the case, since the water quality of the river water would take care of the effluent problem.
    I actually don’t think water conservation is a factor in this decision at all, except in the event of a severe drought where surface water becomes less available. At that point Davis residents might be asked to conserve water simply to reduce the cost of water they’d have to purchase. If some or most of the wells remain in service and large water storage facilities are built, that would be less likely.

  19. E Roberts Musser

    DS: “”…but it may obviate the need for the wastewater treatment plant upgrade…”
    I see no particular reason to believe that would be the case, since the water quality of the river water would take care of the effluent problem.
    I actually don’t think water conservation is a factor in this decision at all, except in the event of a severe drought where surface water becomes less available. At that point Davis residents might be asked to conserve water simply to reduce the cost of water they’d have to purchase. If some or most of the wells remain in service and large water storage facilities are built, that would be less likely.”

    I’m going by what the two UCD experts told us at City Council meetings – that water conservation may obviate the need for a wastewater treatment plant upgrade, or decrease the cost of the upgrades… We will not be using all surface water – there is very good chance in the summer months not enough surface water will be available and well water will have to supplement.

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