Following the flow back to the source

First, the good news: After nearly three years under a state of water emergency, heavy snowfall and rebounding reservoir levels prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare late last month that California’s drought is officially over.

But rather than turn on the sprinklers with reckless abandon, La Cañada Flintridge residents remain under continued pressure to conserve — if for no other reason than water here has gotten to be fairly expensive.

La Cañadans might be surprised to learn they pay up to twice as much for water as their neighbors in Pasadena and Glendale.

Making things more complicated, La Cañada Flintridge is served by four different retail water agencies, all of which bill for water at significantly different rates. Some use a flat rate, while others employ tiered rate structures that increase in price as more is used.

A side-by-side analysis of local water rates indicates that Valley Water Co., which serves about 3,600 homes in the city’s south and central neighborhoods, has the lowest overall water prices in the city.

Not far behind is the Crescenta Valley Water District, which in addition to La Crescenta serves a portion of homes on La Cañada’s west side. That is, unless a CVWD customer uses a very large amount of water — in which case the agency’s tiered rate structure results with some of the area’s steepest charges.

Whether their charges are on the high or low end of the spectrum, residents have no choice among the city’s four retail water agencies. Each came into being to serve specific parts of the community as it grew from a rugged rural landscape into an exclusive Los Angeles suburb.

The Valley Sun began comparing water charges in the area after several readers responded to a call two weeks ago to share their water bills — and confusion or concerns about those bills — with the newspaper.

What we found was a case study in complexity, involving various costs that local water agency managers explained accumulate over multiple steps in the water delivery process.

How water bills work

Customers pay local water agencies not only for the amount of water they use, but also for the cost of electricity used to pump the water, the pipes and reservoirs and other infrastructure needed to deliver it, as well as the overhead involved in maintaining a business.

Agencies charge for fixed infrastructure and overhead costs through flat monthly or bimonthly service charges, which vary by agency.

It’s those flat fees that piqued the curiosity of La Cañada Irrigation District customer Roger Dahl, an Orchard Lane resident who has paid a $43 monthly meter charge for as long as he can remember.

“Basically, I’m renting my pipes. How long should I have to keep paying — forever?” Dahl asked.

The short answer: Yes.

“Whether you use millions of gallons or nothing at all, you’re going to pay the service charge. That covers the general expenses of operating the agency in every regard — keeping the doors open,” said Doug Caister, general manager of the La Cañada Irrigation District, which serves about 40% of La Cañada residents.

“That fact that the system is there to serve a property means we always have to have that much water supply in the system. The size of a meter regulates the amount of water that can be delivered through it, so the larger the meter, the more water we have to have available, which is why there are different charges depending on meter size,” Caister continued.

But because the vast majority of water used by La Cañada Flintridge residents must be imported from the Colorado River or Sacramento Delta, all four local water agencies also have to absorb the electricity, infrastructure and overhead charges of other water wholesale agencies.

“Our biggest costs are for [imported] water and Southern California Edison for [our own] pumping. It all depends on system demands — the cost to purchase water and the cost to pump it,” said Valley Water Co. General Manager Bob Fan.

Imported water’s high costs

Part of what’s driving the relatively lower prices at Valley and CVWD is those agencies’ access to local sources of water, which lessens their reliance on pricey water imports.

At Valley, 25% of a year’s water supply comes from groundwater sources, and CVWD taps 40% of its supply locally. By contrast, Mesa Crest Water Co., which serves about 700 mostly residential customers on the city’s northeast side, is wholly dependent on imports. La Cañada Irrigation District gets only about 5% of its water from the ground.

All four agencies purchase imported water through the Foothill Municipal Water District, a water wholesale agency that buys water from the regional Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and pumps it from a facility near the Rose Bowl uphill to local reservoirs.

Foothill Municipal Water District’s roots go back to 1952, when then-Assemblyman Frank Lanterman led a charge to bring imported water into the growing Foothills region. Without Foothill, the then-unincorporated area would have had to join either Pasadena or Glendale to tap MWD sources, Foothill board member Richard Atwater explained.

But these days, the cost of buying imported water from MWD has increased drastically over the past four years, said Nina Jazmadarian, general manager of the Foothill Municipal Water District.

Five MWD rate hikes since January 2008 have rapidly accelerated Foothill’s expenses. What was once $100 worth of MWD water now sells to Foothill for around $160, according to numbers provided by Jazmadarian.

On top of that, MWD recovers infrastructure costs by attaching flat fees to Foothill’s bill, which Foothill must divide among the agencies it serves according to how much water each uses.

“Any agency that pumps groundwater, unless they have to do a lot of treatment, can do it much cheaper because electricity costs [for pumping] are cheaper and they don’t have to pay for the state infrastructure,” said Jazmadarian.

Prices of imported water rose so rapidly, she said, that Foothill cut its workforce and deferred maintenance last year to absorb some of those costs.

Why size matters

While varying levels of imported water use help account for differences in rates among local water agencies, infrastructure costs have more to do with why La Cañadans tend pay a lot more than their Glendale and Pasadena neighbors. But how much more?

Usage varies tremendously, depending on lot size and time of year. A fairly efficient water user with an average-sized lot might use a little less than 15,000 gallons of water in two winter months. According to agency rate scales — including meter service charges — Valley Water Co. would send a bill of about $84, Crescenta Valley Water District around $88, La Cañada Irrigation District close to $117 and Mesa Crest as high as $127. Pasadena, however, would bill about $55, and Glendale less than $50.

On the other end of the scale, someone with a lot of landscaping to irrigate during two hot and dry months might use closer to 150,000 gallons. Valley Water’s bill for that much usage is less than $800, and La Cañada Irrigation District’s is around $867. Mesa Crest’s charges would tally close to $1,000 — about $20 less than Crescenta Valley Water District, which gets more and more expensive in its upper billing tiers. Pasadena, however is still around $500, and Glendale comes in at just under $400 for that amount of water.

Groundwater, which Glendale doesn’t have all that much of, doesn’t really explain these price differences.

According to Jazmadarian, size has a lot to do with it.

“Both agencies have a bigger customer base. Glendale’s demands are about one-third more than Foothill’s [entire] service area’s demands, and Pasadena’s are about double. Much of the costs that water agencies have are fixed. When we split those costs by a smaller [amount of water] sold, the unit cost ends up being more expensive,” Jazmadarian said.

Conservation is key

So before making any frustrated calls to Mesa Crest regarding its relatively higher rates, consider that the agency is by far the city’s smallest — giving it the least wiggle room to spread infrastructure costs around. And not only does Mesa Crest rely exclusively on costly water imports, the agency also spends more per gallon on electricity to pump that expensive water high onto the hillsides near the La Cañada Flintridge Country Club.

“My grandfather, Matt Flynn, bought a large chunk of land from the Gould estate in the 1940s and developed some of it. In the process, he needed to provide water service, and the other companies wouldn’t do it. So he went to the PUC [Public Utilities Commission] to form a water company,” explained Mesa Crest General Manager Tim Flynn.

To this day, the PUC regulates family-run Mesa Crest and sets its water rates based on cost and usage estimates, Flynn said.

Valley Water is a mutual water company, in which each of its customers holds shares, while the La Cañada Irrigation District and Crescenta Valley Water District are public agencies.

No matter a water provider’s structure, each has choices about how to divvy costs among customers, said Atwater, a CVWD customer who once also sat on its board.

And although the governor’s declaration of drought’s end prompted CVWD on Tuesday to lift certain restrictions on outdoor watering, the agency’s tiered rate system remains in place as a strategy for sharing water costs by forcing those who use more to pay more.

“CVWD’s overall costs to provide water to high-volume users increase because of additional demand on CVWD’s source water, additional power costs and the distribution system. The goal of the tiered rate structure, or conservation-oriented rates, is to reduce water usage and encourage users to choose more efficient ways to meet their water needs,” said David Gould, CVWD’s district engineer.

In other words, if it costs more, you pay more.

And in the end, it seems the only way anyone’s going to save on their water bills is to use much less.

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