Nipomo water rates could rise to pay for new pipeline and drought effects

clambert@thetribunenews.comApril 9, 2014 

Residents who live within the Nipomo Community Services District boundaries could face higher water rates if a severe drought condition is declared.

Customers in the Nipomo district — which includes about 12,000 people and 40 businesses — may also see their bills rise in order to pay for water coming to the community through a pipeline from Santa Maria.

The Nipomo district board on Wednesday received information on the proposed rate increases but will formally consider them May 14. After that, residents would have a chance to protest the increases, with a public hearing tentatively scheduled for July 9.

In addition, the board approved a water shortage response plan that outlines specific actions the district could take if the groundwater basin falls to extremely low levels or there’s evidence of seawater intrusion.

A few board members and local residents worried about how the increases would affect community members living on a fixed income. Another underlying concern remains whether other water users on the Mesa, including other large water purveyors, are going to take similar steps to prompt their customers to conserve.

“Nipomo does not have a water shortage problem; the entire mesa has a water shortage problem,” resident Dan Hall wrote in comments submitted to the board. “As with the North County, this is a county problem, and solutions for conserving water need to be shared by all parties, including the users of rural wells.”

Nipomo residents have one source of water: an enormous underground aquifer that serves parts of southern San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties. Besides Nipomo district residents, other users on the Nipomo Mesa include water purveyors Golden State Water Co., Rural Water Co. and Woodlands Mutual Water Co.; the Phillips 66 oil refinery; and about 1,000 private wells.

Last year, wells in the area dropped to their lowest level on record. An update on the status of the basin is expected in May.

“I hope the intent and goal here is collaboration with neighboring supplies so they work in concert with us,” said resident Ed Eby, a former district board member. “If we raise our rates, they raise theirs.”

Nipomo district customers are in the midst of annual rollout of rate increases approved in 2011, with water rates scheduled to increase 9.5 percent this November and in November 2015.

Whatever action the board takes on additional rate hikes would be on top of the existing increases, officials said. The drought-related rate increases could be put into effect only after a severe water shortage condition is declared; they were described as one tool the board could use to reduce its groundwater pumping.

The board chose to reduce water use through rate increases, not mandatory conservation. The district would urge customers to conserve, but would not impose mandatory measures, which can be costly to enforce, district general manager Michael LeBrun said.

The average customer currently uses nearly 27,000 gallons of water every two months and pays $108.99. Under the proposed rates, that customer would pay $163.23 if a more advanced drought condition were declared (called Stage 3).

The district has been operating under a Stage 2 condition since spring 2008, meaning that a potentially severe water shortage exists. The board also discussed charging a fixed fee of $39.79 to pay for the cost of supplemental water that it’s agreed to purchase from Santa Maria.

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