Higher water rates proposed

Laguna Beach County Water District' s customers will start paying more for their water in each of the next four years, if staggered increases are approved by the Board of Directors.

The district commissioners voted unanimously on Tuesday to recommend approval by the board of directors of rate hikes based on increases in the cost of imported water, on which the district is wholly dependent. Prudent water users will be the least affected customers, district officials said.

"Something like 70% of our customers won't see much of an increase," district General Manager Renae Hinchey told the handful of residents, including Councilwoman Jane Egly, who attended the meeting.

The district will feel a greater pinch than its customers,

Metropolitan Water District of Orange County, the district's wholesaler, is raising the cost of water delivered to Laguna Beach by 7.5% in 2011 and again in 2012, 7% in 2013 and 3% in both 2014 and 2015. Multi-year rate increases recommended by the commission go only to 2014.

The typical single-family residence, whose water usage falls within the parameters of Tier One Water Budget rates, will see a $3.39 increase in their bi-monthly service charge and a 33 cent increase per unit of water over the span of years recommended by the commissioners.

"Our typical customer uses about 24 units per billing cycle," said Christopher Regan, district assistant general manager.

The water budget per household is based on variables that include size of the property and the number of residents, three considered typical. Customers can request a review of their water budget by calling Regan or customer service at (949) 494-1041.

Water rates for Tier One users are basically the cost of getting the water from the wholesaler, said Brian Jewett, the consultant hired by the district to conduct a water rate and water budget study.

And tap water is one of the biggest bargains around, he said, about a half cent a gallon.

Tier Two customers, whose usage is deemed inefficient, are billed at a higher rate to encourage water conservation and to pay for measures taken by the district to reduce consumption. Their rate will increase from $5.96 per unit to $6.45 per unit.

Total bills depend on how much water is used. Tier One customers who exceed their budget will be charged at the Tier Two rate for the overage.

Basically, the two-tier system means that whoever turns on the tap for however long pays the price.

"It puts more control in the hands of the customers," Jewett said, reprising his written report.

The study was ordered to ensure that the district was charging enough to cover its expenses and that rates were set based on the service provided, as required by Proposition 218.

Proposition 218 also requires the district to notify all customers of proposed increases and provide a 45-day period for them to submit written or oral protests before or at a public meeting.

As of Tuesday, 13 protests were submitted from a customer base of about 7,500 households. Emerald Bay is also serviced by the district.

Resident Ganka Brown opined that the Tier Two rate is not high enough to deter excessive use.

"I have heard people say they don't care — they can afford it," Brown said.

She suggested the district post signs reading "WASTER" on the properties of people who carelessly exceed the Tier One allotment.

"I have a list," Brown said.

Some districts have a third and fourth tier, which runs $8 to $10 a unit, Jewett said.

"Call us if you see waste," Regan said. "We will be happy to get out there."


Desalinization project

Wasted water translates into higher rates needed to pay for the costly imported water without which the city would run dry. Laguna imports 100% of all of its water — one reason the district is participating with other districts in a pilot desalinization project.

Egly announced at the Oct. 5 council meeting that a tour of the pilot project at Doheny Beach will be held at 1 p.m. Nov. 17. For more information, call (494) 499-4555, ext. 3152.

Desalinization is seen as a renewable source of water. Cheaper would also be good.

"We do everything we can to keep the rates down," Hinchey said.

Staff size has not increased in the 10 years Hinchey has been at the helm of the district. There is a hiring freeze, vacated positions have not been filled and employees are sharing in the costs of benefits.


Water Expo held

The district has also assigned two staff members to educate the public and in September hosted Smartscape Info Expo for the public to learn more about smart outdoor water use.

Expo participants included the California Landscape Contractors Association, Ewing Irrigation Products, Hunter Industries, Rain Bird, Toro Irrigation, Home Depot, Tree of Life Nursery, A Native Garden Design Inc., California Native Plant Society, Laguna Koi Ponds and Back Nine Green.

Local organizations that participated included Transition Laguna, which fosters neighborhood vegetable gardens' the Laguna Beach Chamber of Commerce Beautification Council, which presents awards to landscaping that enhances the city streetscape, Friends of Hortense Miller Gardens, Greater Laguna Coast Fire Safe Council and the city.

Children painted plant pots while adults consulted with landscape architects who offered 20-minute free consultations and visited vendors' booths at which water-wise equipment was exhibited.

The district also offered free hose nozzles to the folks who attended the expo and free native poppy seeds, California's official flower.

Other water-efficient equipment has been made available to the public, including low-flow shower heads and waterless urinals.

The district is also working with the city to reduce run-off from public property, which not only saves money and conserves a vital resource, but also prevents pollutants from reaching our beaches and the ocean through storm drains.

Tips on water abusers can be called into the Waste Water Hot Line at (949) 342-1437.

Final approval of the rate increase will be up to the City Council, sitting as the district board of directors.

A meeting has not yet been scheduled, but it must be held prior to Jan. 1, when the increase in the wholesale cost of water begins.

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