Santa Barbara City Attorney Ariel Calonne says he has nothing to fear from a ruling just issued by California’s 4th District Court of Appeal finding unconstitutional the tiered water rates charged by the City of San Juan Capistrano. “It should have no effect,” Calonne said. Like Capistrano — and about two-thirds of all state water districts — Santa Barbara charges customers according to a tiered pricing scheme in which progressively higher prices are charged as customers use progressively more water. San Juan Capistrano fell afoul of Proposition 218 — passed by California voters in 1996 — because it charged some customers more for their water than it actually cost the city to provide the service. By contrast, Calonne noted, Santa Barbara City Hall has tied its rates to the actual cost of delivery.
Prior to the passage of Prop. 218, cities were legally allowed to charge some customers less than the true cost of service by charging others, typically the largest consumers, more. That no longer is legal. Because of this, Calonne and the council rejected entreaties by a handful of avocado ranchers for a break on their rates. The growers complained the price increase about to go into effect would cause their financial ruin. Though their arguments were sympathetically received, the council concluded it could not comply without running afoul of Prop. 218.
The new rates, designed to cover the $42 million City Hall has budgeted to revamp the city’s long mothballed desalination plant, will go into effect in July. That plant should be operative the following year, providing 3,124 acre-feet of energy intensive, very expensive water should the drought persist. Other water agencies are scrambling for their own bailout solutions. In the meantime, actor William Shatner of Star Trek fame is floating a $30 billion dream to build a pipeline from Seattle to California to pump water from the Pacific Northwest to the parched Southwest.