Drought Water Rates Hit Conservers and Wasters Alike

By Kristin McFarland
Thursday July 10, 2008 - 09:32:00 AM

Despite public and board member concerns, the East Bay Municipal Utility District passed updated drought rates this week that will go into effect Aug. 1. 

Dismayed citizens from all over the East Bay attended and spoke at Tuesday’s meeting of the EBMUD board of directors. Most were concerned that the Drought Management Program, which will include a 10 percent rate increase, a required decrease in consumer water use by up to 19 percent, and a $2 surcharge for each 25 gallons per day of water used above a customer’s individual allocation, is unfair to those already pursuing aggressive conservation measures.  

“We are trying to get through this so that we conserve enough water for next year,” said John A. Coleman, EBMUD director for Ward 2, the westernmost section of the East Bay, extending from Pleasant Hill down to San Ramon. “If we’re still in a drought next year and we haven’t conserved enough, it will be more severe.”  

EBMUD has a district wide water-use reduction goal of 15 percent, with varying reduction goals per consumer category. A single-family residence will be expected to reduce its water usage by 19 percent, and apartment dwellers by 11 percent. The reduced allocation is calculated using a family’s average billed consumption from 2005-2007.  

All EBMUD customers will be notified by mail of their water use allocation by Aug. 8. Bills received in September will reflect the new rates. 

Customers using less than 100 gallons per day will be exempt from the water-use reduction requirement. 

Robert Feinbaum, the director of Hydro Nova, an Oakland-based organization that urges property owners and policy-makers to rethink their use of wastewater, felt that the drought measures adopted by EMBUD were punitive and unnecessary. 

“I’m here to oppose your unfair, unjust increase on people who already do their part,” Feinbaum told the board of directors. 

Feinbaum told the board that the allocation adjustment process, which would allow consumers who believe they cannot meet their assigned allocation to appeal for a larger baseline volume of water, is complicated and “meant not to be used.”  

Consumers who wish to appeal their allotment can visit the EBMUD website to fill out a request form and complete a self-audit kit to verify that they are effectively conserving water. Exemptions are available for those who are already conserving water in addition to those who have medical needs or other extenuating circumstances. 

For Feinbaum and other users already practicing water conservation, the 19 percent reduction and the 100 gallons per day exemption requirements seem unduly harsh. 

Vicki Winston of Richmond said that she and her husband have practiced water conservation for years. They currently use 108-152 gallons per day, she said, which would fail to meet the exemption requirement. 

“A reduction for us would be 90-130 gallons per day,” Winston told the board. “We’re not even going to try to reach that, and I’m not even going to try to appeal.” 

Winston showed pictures of her parched lawn and the bucket collecting waste water in her shower to illustrate the efforts she’s been taking and show that it will simply be too difficult to further reduce their water usage. 

The drought surcharge, at $2 for each 25 gallons per day of water used above 90 percent of a customer’s prior years’ use, will not provide much incentive for families, like Winston’s, that can afford it. Instead the surcharge will serve as a punitive measure against a family already conserving. 

If customers meet their assigned conservation level, their bills will be less than in previous years, despite the volume rate increase, according to the district. The increase is necessary, EBMUD says, to prevent it from losing money as the district cuts back on water usage, and will raise approximately $17 million a year. The $2 surcharge on water usage over allotment will generate approximately $4 million annually. EBMUD itself will use up to $31 million of its reserves to pay for the Drought Management Program. 

Doug Linney, vice president of the board of directors and director for Ward 5 (Alameda to San Leandro) expressed concern for the families already conserving water. 

“What we really need to do is make sure that those who have been working hard are not going to be hurt,” he said. The directors agreed that ways of recognizing “smart water users” need to be discussed for future implementation. 

“I’m not convinced that this is the best we can do,” said Andy Katz, director of Ward 4, representing El Cerrito through Berkeley and Emeryville. 

Although the board discussed making changes to the rates and 100-gallon-per-day exemption requirement, they could not do so at the meeting because revisions would set the process back another 45 days, an impractical measure when the drought is already stretching water resources. 

“This is a drought, not water supply management,” said Director William Patterson of Ward 6, covering parts of Oakland. “You don’t have time for long-term study. You must have the ability to wisely use what you have and stretch it as far as you can.” 

Both citizens and board members emphasized the need to consider long-term drought measures in addition to the methods passed Tuesday. 

Nick C. Chiotras, a Berkeley resident since 1955, said he uses “a lot of water” on his roses. 

“My garden is my therapy, it’s my paradise that the man above gave us to grow,” Chiotras said. He told the board that the source of the water shortage is not his roses, but rather California’s continual development and population growth.  

“What innovative plans are on the table to avoid these emergencies?” he asked. “I think it’s time we looked at the whole picture and not myopically.” 

For now, this plan is the best the board can offer, board members said. 

“It’s not a perfect world and certainly it’s not a perfect solution, but it’s what we have before us,” said Board President Lesa R. McIntosh, who serves as director for Ward 1, the northernmost part of East Bay from Richmond to Crockett. “No one’s going to be 100 percent happy on this. It’ll never happen. For today, I think this is a fair methodology.”