Region : $10 Water Surcharge Headed for Renewal

One of the Southeast area's main water suppliers will decide Monday whether to continue a $10 surcharge on users imposed four years ago to fund a project that would ensure water availability during droughts.

Despite opposition by a few city leaders, the Central Basin Municipal Water District board appears likely to renew the levy. Also known as a standby charge, it is financing the district's water recycling project and water conservation program, begun during Southern California's most recent drought.

Critics say the district's board is trying to push through the charge with little public notice.

South Gate Mayor Albert Robles, who heads a coalition of Southeast city officials opposing the charge, contends that the charge is a subsidy for the district's reclaimed water project that mainly benefits industry, not residents.

"Has the district explained to residential homeowners why they should pay for the project that benefits a handful of industrial users? Of course not," he said.

In a report to area city councils, district General Manager Richard W. Atwater said public hearings for the surcharge have been held every year--including one in February--but few people have voiced opposition.

The levy would be for fiscal year 1995-96 and would appear on November tax bills. It will be used to help pay off about $100 million in bonds and interest.

As of February, the district had constructed 70 miles of pipeline to deliver recycled water, which is considered to be the least costly supply of water for the district. The district plans to build more pipelines in Vernon, Bell Gardens, Commerce and Montebello.

The Central Basin district is hoping to get large water users to switch to reclaimed water from potable water so that it can be saved for droughts. The recycled water comes from treatment plants in Whittier and Cerritos operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation District. It is then sold to such businesses as golf courses and industrial plants.

The Central Basin district, which serves 25 cities, wholesales imported and recycled water to local agencies bought from the Metropolitan Water District, Southern California's biggest water supplier. It also receives reclaimed water from the county Sanitation District.

The Southeast area gets 30% of its water from the Central Basin district. Local water departments and companies meet the rest of the area's needs with ground water.

"I don't oppose recycled water," said Bell Mayor George Bass, who along with Robles formed the Coalition for Responsible Reclaimed Water Policy, which includes Maywood Councilwoman Elvira Moreno-Guzman and Vernon Mayor Pro Tem Thomas Ybarra.

"I do have an objection with taxation with no potential use for the people that are paying the bill. I don't see any reason why we should be paying for the water for businesses in Vernon. We are never going to benefit from the pipeline. It is strictly for industry," Bass said.

Vernon, despite being a mostly industrial city, joined the coalition because the district has offered no guarantee that the reclaimed water will be cheaper than the potable water it now receives.

"If the district can't assure that the cost of recycled water is going to be less than potable water, then what's the point?" said Shari Davis, a spokeswoman for Vernon.

Replied district spokesman Adan Ortega: "If we were to give that preferential treatment to Vernon, then other cities would be paying for its part."

In order to pay for the project, the district issued $42 million in revenue bonds. Interest payments over the life of the 25-year project will be $53.2 million. Most of the money will come from a rebate contract with MWD and through federal grants.

However, until it can sell enough water to pay off its debt as well as the operating expenses for the recycling program, the district plans to continue renewing the standby charge, Ortega said.

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