Water Prices Rise, So Do Tempers in Goleta

District Board Votes to Increase Rates to Cover Expenses

Goleta Water District raised its rates, citing increased costs, including treatment of water from Lake Cachuma, which supplies three-quarters of Goleta's water when it's available, and the necessity to improve other sources. | Credit: Courtesy GoletaWater.com

“We are extremely alarmed by this proposal, especially during this period of economic crisis,” wrote Carolyn Larson in a letter to the Goleta Water District, protesting the rate hikes voted in on June 23. Public outcry against the water rate increase proposed by the district reached a fever pitch, but ultimately too few protested to rescind the proposal successfully.

The Goleta Water District passed a measure last Tuesday in favor of a five-year plan that will increase water rates by anywhere from 58 percent to 74 percent, depending on water usage. For a single household with a water bill of $48, it will rise to $57 on July 1, according to the new water rates. But the rates crank upward for those who use more than 600 cubic feet of water — at 1,300 cubic feet, the rate jumps from $111 to $148.

“There is no doubt that to maintain a safe and reliable water supply our water rates need to increase,” Kathleen Werner, vice president of the district, said in an email. “The question is by how much.”

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According to the five-year plan, a variety of projects, tiered by priority, will require a total of $49,950,000 to be fully completed. Eight million dollars of that is required by law; $21 million is required to maintain the level of service — including $9 million for State Water infrastructure — and $20.5 million is required to address critical deficiencies.

Many of the improvements required by law are related to changes due to the City of Goleta’s proposed road improvements. This includes the relocation of a recycled-water booster pump station, and relocation of infrastructure at Ekwill, Fowler, and Hollister, calculated at $3.5 million.

Additionally, the Water District cited the ongoing drought and wildfires — 2016’s Rey, 2017’s Whittier and Thomas fires — as additional causes of the increase.

“The drought and wildfires in the Lake Cachuma watershed caused an increase in the amount of organic material in the lake and a decrease in water quality,” Werner said. “Additional treatment, in the form of aeration equipment in reservoirs, upgrading and adding redundancy to pump stations were put in place.”

Werner also cited the paradox that the community successfully conserved water to the point that they used as much as in the 1970s. The cost of transportation, treatment, and distribution of the water has increased, however. That and refurbishing wells during the drought contributed to the need for more filtration equipment in the next five years, she wrote in her email to constituents.

According to Robert McDonald, director of the Carpinteria Valley Water District, which also get its water from Lake Cachuma, numerous smaller vegetation fires along State Route 154 in the past two years were major sources of the pollution. “The increase rates we see are a combination of the need for treatment, and a response to the ongoing drought,” McDonald said.

The Goleta Water District is a not-for-profit agency and therefore does not receive any federal funding from tax dollars. This means that all improvements, repairs, and maintenance must be paid for using the revenue from water rates, as were discussed by its Board of Directors in meetings on April 30 and May 4.

Many residents have voiced fervent opposition to the proposed increase, citing the loss of income from the ongoing pandemic as a major factor.

“This is incredibly cruel, especially now that many of us have lost our jobs or have had our work hours cut significantly,” said Goleta resident Tina Kerrigan. “We cannot afford this, by any means.”

According to a California Employment Development Division study, in April Goleta reported a staggering 13 percent unemployment rate, increased from 4.5 percent in March.

Employment is not the only cause of ire among the residents: Water District management have had salaries of more than $200,000 for the past five years.

According to Transparent California, a public pay and pension database, John McInnes, the general manager, made $298,000 in 2018, and David Matson, the assistant general manager, earned $246,000 the same year, which is the most recent for which information is available. Matson did not respond to a request for comment

“The fact that your salaries are so high is also disgusting,” said Barbara Hill, a Goleta resident. “How can you guys sleep at night?”

For the public to overcome the rate increase, several thousand customers had to submit a protest, according to a protest page at the Water District that has been taken down. By the time of the meeting, fewer than a thousand had written in, however, and the new rates were adopted.

Correction: The description of Goleta Water District as a “not-for-profit business” was corrected on July 23 to state that it is a governmental agency, or district, and one that does not operate at a “profit.”

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