Big Jump in Water Bills?

If Desal Plant Is Reactivated, Average Ratepayer Will See $22 Increase

Santa Barbara water boss Josh Haggmark
Paul Wellman (file)

Should the Santa Barbara City Council pull the trigger next April to reactivate the city’s long-dormant desalination plant, the average ratepayer will experience a $22 increase in monthly water bills, bringing the average monthly cost for water to $100. This proposed rate increase ​— ​mulled over by the council this Tuesday but not voted on ​— ​is designed to generate enough money over a 10-year period to cover the roughly $42 million in additional costs. This would cover the expenses to rebuild the plant and operate it for one year, plus an additional $2 million to ensure one percent of the city’s pipes are replaced each year.

Before the desal plant can be authorized, the new rate structure must go into effect. And before that can happen, state law mandates that ratepayers be notified of the maximum amount their rates might go up. Of the extra $22 a month, $9 would come from fixed meter costs. The rest would be charged based on usage, with low-volume users paying less than larger consumers. For low water users, the bump could be $9 a month. For high-volume consumers, it could reach $195. “That brings us on par with what ratepayers are paying in Goleta, Carpinteria, and Montecito,” said City Hall water czar Josh Haggmark. “Right now, we offer the cheapest water on the South Coast, at least for the average users.”

If built as planned, the desalination plant would have the capacity to produce 3,125 acre-feet of water a year, roughly one-quarter of the city’s current demand. Thus far, no decision has been made to reactivate; that vote would take place next April if no significant rains or alternate water supplies become available. If the drought persists, the ability exists to double the plant’s capacity. That would cost an additional $30 million, which would in turn require an additional jump in rates. All of this, councilmembers acknowledged, will be felt most sharply by low-income residents. But under state law, municipalities are prohibited from subsidizing the rates of low-income customers.

While recent rains have not been enough to generate any runoff into the South Coast’s reservoir at Lake Cachuma, the State Water Resources Board has tentatively announced it will be able to deliver 10 percent of the state water it’s contractually obligated to serve in the coming year. While that may sound dismal, it’s twice as much as was delivered in this water year.

For planners like Haggmark, the 300 acre-feet of deliverable state water — 10 percent of City Hall’s entitled delivery — won’t qualify even as a drop in the proverbial bucket, but it’s an encouraging sign that rice farmers north of the San Joaquin Delta will be able to send their water to agencies in Southern California. Haggmark said he’s been authorized to buy up to 4,500 acre-feet of such water in the coming year. If the Delta gets sufficiently dry, such deliveries become all but physically impossible. In the meantime, however, he’s proceeding with the desal plant full bore.

This January, the Regional Water Quality Control Board will hold a public hearing to determine whether the desal plant can be approved as proposed or whether further mitigations are necessary to reduce impact on microscopic sea larvae killed when sucked into the plant’s intake valves. Some environmental critics have insisted that long-term, the intake valves should be located underneath the ocean floor so that the sand can act as a protective sieve.

City Hall is proposing, instead, to install protective mesh screening over intake valves that will be affixed to the ocean floor. To do otherwise, Haggmark has argued, would prove prohibitively expensive and take up too much subsurface real estate off the coast. It will be up to the regional water board — as well as the California Coastal Commission — to decide these issues. The regional board is scheduled to address the matter this January and the California Coastal Commission in February.

For the past 10 months, Haggmark has been acting as the city’s “acting” water director. As of this week, he’s now officially designated as City Hall’s water tsar, a term he took some exception to. “I was hoping to move away from further references to the Russian monarchy,” he commented. “How about looking into the Danish monarchy instead? It seems they’ve managed to live in peace with their neighbors.”

In other water news, the city council approved a $1 million contract to replace the existing well in Alameda Park. The current well has failed, with pumping action producing sand not water. And the Goleta Water District Board agreed to put six acre-feet a year of potable water in Lake Los Carneros at the request of the City of Goleta. Without this water, Goleta officials argued, federally endangered creatures could be imperiled, and Goleta would lose a choice recreational destination.


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