Fairness of water allocation debated

ktanner@thetribunenews.comApril 3, 2014 

This article has been edited to correct a misstatement of the amount of water use allowed by residential accounts before billing surcharges take effect.


Cambria Community Services District directors didn’t come to any decisions at their regular monthly meeting March 27 about revising how much water each account would be allowed before stiff, drought-related surcharges set in, but they certainly got a lot of public input on the topic.

At the end of the hour-long comment period, four members of the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors directed staff to provide soon some data — such as stats on seasonal water use by commercial clients, defining what constitutes a permanent resident, and quantifying how much water is used by the community’s approximately 350 vacation rental homes and how those bills would change if the district classed the homes as commercial accounts and charged commercial service rates.

Board President Jim Bahringer recused himself from the discussion because he is a business owner. Although he hadn’t yet received formal advice from the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, he said he wanted to avoid any appearance of impropriety. 

Of the 17 audience members who spoke on the issue, three represented the vacation-rental industry, two own motels, one owns a restaurant, one works for the nonprofit Camp Ocean Pines and eight were residents. The audience of more than 70 had dwindled by half by the time the board began taking the testimony.

Under the district’s water-emergency declaration and a resolution the board approved Jan. 30, each residential account is allocated two water units a month (four per billing period) for each fulltime resident. A unit of water is 100 cubic feet, or 748 gallons, which equates to about 50 gallons per person per day. 

But residential accounts weren’t the prime topic of the day. Instead, most people shared their thoughts about commercial water allocations.

Commercial accounts are allocated 80 percent of their actual use during the previous 12 months, an amount currently averaged out rather than applied seasonally. The business people who spoke at the meeting said the lack of a seasonal variance would be an extreme hardship in a community that relies so heavily on tourist trade.

A first-violation, 500-percent surcharge for residences and businesses applies to water use that exceeds the allocation, 1,000-percent penalty for the second violation. If subsequent bills show water use above the allocation, the penalties can rise. Excess use after that is subject to the 1,000-percent surcharge and the district can turn off the water.

Tom Hamlin of San Diego, who owns a vacation rental home on Marine Terrace, showed the board graphs he’d prepared after researching average water use by 142 of the lodgings, all of which are represented by four management firms. The graphs demonstrated that, under the current allocations that class vacation rentals as “nonpermanent residents,” water use would have to be reduced a minimum of 50 percent, an average of 60 percent, and 77 percent during July and August. 

If vacation rentals are classed as commercial accounts, those that haven’t already done so would retrofit, they’d be charged commercial water rates and their use would be based on 80 percent of a lodging’s use in the previous 12 months.

That still leaves the seasonal variation in use as a major problem, for vacation rentals and other tourist-serving businesses that use a lot of water, such as restaurants and motels. Some of the businesses already cut back when the drought problem began in 2012-2013, a responsible action that now could further restrict how much water they can use before being surcharged.

John MacKinnon of Moonstone Beach Bar and Grill said he’s done the math, and estimates he’d have to reduce water use by 50 percent in summer or pay “close to $30,000” in surcharges during the peak tourist season.

Kim Eady of Cambria Shores Motel said, “We’re doing the best we can to control our water consumption … we are all over our hotel guests,” telling them at check-in about the water shortage and then monitoring use. 

Charlie Yates, who manages several motel properties, said the district audited every bathroom for low-flow fixtures. “We got rid of glass and coffee cups,” going to recyclable products. “We also have Harvey’s Honey Huts; I use them and my staff does, too. We replaced pressure valves,” adjusted washing machines to use 20 percent less water and “put aerators on every sink. We ripped out a lot of landscaping.”

MacKinnon concluded, “We’re on a ship that’s sinking. We have a lot of people who’d rather yell at the captain than get the lifeboats out. Let’s pull together and get this done.”

Director Muril Clift recommended that vacation rentals “ought to be charged commercial rates … You’d have to prove you have updated to all that’s current, and if you do that, then we’d class you as commercial and you’d be subject to the 20 percent rule. On the billing cycle, print me out everything from last year to this year … take the 12 months, divide it over the six month periods.” 

Follow Kathe Tanner on Twitter at @CambriaReporter.

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