A coalition of Goleta Valley farmers sued the Goleta Water District, charging the district violated state law by adopting a new drought-inspired water rate without providing the required documentation showing that the new rates correspond to the actual costs of delivering water.

Under a recent court interpretation of a 20-year-old state law, water districts can no longer charge higher rates simply to encourage customers to conserve more, as they’ve long done in times of drought. According to the lawsuit filed by Goleta’s Agricultural Preservation, the Goleta Water Board never showed rate payers any of the studies justifying the rate increase until two days before the increase was adopted by the water board on June 16. Those studies, the lawsuit contends, fail to justify the rate hike — deemed necessary by the district to cover the cost of water in times of drought — as state law requires.

In the current legal climate, justifying the tiered water rates most districts charge — linking the variable costs of water to the actual cost of delivery — can be technically challenging. Once the new rates go into effect, the lawsuit contends, ag users in the Goleta Valley will see their rates go up fourfold over what they were just a few months ago.

Making the lawsuit especially striking is that it was filed by the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a legal powerhouse that specializes in representing water districts, not suing them. Goleta retained the legal services of water specialist Michael Colantuono who said he’s litigated many such cases. Colantuono said the rate study paid for by the district clearly meets the requirements of state law and expressed confidence the district would prevail. The existence of such a lawsuit could prove problematic should the water district seek to obtain new loans collateralized with the new, higher rates. Colantuono acknowledged that’s been a problem in other districts, but said Goleta has no plans of seeking such financing.


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