Nipomo water shortage could mean higher rates for residents

clambert@thetribunenews.comFebruary 15, 2014 

Nipomo Community Services District leaders this week approved a water shortage response plan that could mean higher water rates for residents if the groundwater basin falls to extremely low levels or there’s evidence of seawater intrusion.

The district board voted 3-2 to approve a draft plan this week, with board members Bob Blair and Jim Harrison dissenting.

“Basically what you have to do to is look out for the ratepayer,” Blair said Friday. “The ratepayer is really going to catch it in Nipomo.”

Almost Stage 3

Since spring 2008, the Nipomo district – which provides water to about 12,000 people and 40 businesses – has been operating under a “Stage 2” condition, meaning that a potentially severe water shortage exists. District officials have asked residents to voluntary reduce their use of water by 30 percent.

A water rate increase passed in 2011 and, rolled out over three years, already has had some effect on water use.

An average district customer – defined as one connection with an average of three people per connection – uses about 13,000 gallons of month, down from 15,000 gallons a month about three years ago, district General Manager Michael LeBrun said.

But if the aquifer levels fall even further and a “Stage 3” condition is triggered, the district is required to reduce its production of groundwater by 30 percent.

“How do we encourage folks to use less water so we can pump less water?” LeBrun said. “We do that through rates.”

Nipomo residents have one source of water: an enormous underground aquifer that covers a surface area of about 256 square miles and serves parts of southern San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties.

The Nipomo district is just one of many straws in the aquifer. The district and three other water purveyors — Golden State Water Co., Rural Water Co. and Woodlands Mutual Water Co. — use about 39 percent of the 11,000 acre-feet of groundwater consumed on the mesa, according to the Nipomo Mesa Management Area Technical Group. The group was established following a settlement of litigation over water rights in the basin.

The other users drawing from the aquifer include wells that supply water for agricultural, residential and commercial users.

Per the court settlement over water rights, Golden State, Woodlands and Rural Water are also required to develop their own response plans.

Even with conservation, Nipomo district officials say more water is being pulled from the ground than is being replenished, and recent drought conditions significantly worsened the situation.

Aquifer levels were 30 percent lower in spring 2013 than the previous spring and are the lowest since 1975, the earliest year on record. The measurements were just short of triggering a Stage 3 severe water shortage in spring 2013, LeBrun said.

Limiting service

The Nipomo district is in the process of building a $17.5 million pipeline bringing water to the community from Santa Maria. Construction started in October.

In the meantime, a district consultant will prepare a set of rate increases that the board could decide to put into effect if a severe water shortage is declared.

Before any rate increases could occur, residents, including property owners and tenants, would have 45 days to protest them. A majority of customers would have to protest to halt the increases.

Also Wednesday, board members discussed but did not reach consensus on whether the district might suspend processing new applications for water service during an extreme drought.

While the issue will come back to the board at its next meeting on Feb. 26, there was some heated discussion about it, LeBrun said.

Debate abounded: Should the district allow new customers to dip into the aquifer during a drought, putting more stress on the basin?

But if it doesn’t, is that really fair to district customers when other residents or water purveyors located outside the district’s boundaries can add new homes or new customers?

“If the district stops giving will-serve letters, it makes the property owners in the district’s (boundaries) worth less money than a property across the street in a different water district,” Blair said.

Harrison said he would not support a plan that includes any suspension of new water connections as long as San Luis Obispo County continues to issue building permits for other areas on the Mesa.

“The county should have everyone come together,” he said, “and come up with a solution.”

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