Atascadero residents and businesses don’t get their water from the city. Instead, it flows from a private shareholder system the city’s founder, E.G. Lewis, established using nearly 100-year old riparian water rights and a vision for the future.
Today, a population of about 28,000 people on properties within the original Colony of Atascadero — the entire city plus some unincorporated areas — owns the water through the Atascadero Mutual Water Co.
That means the city’s grassy parks and sports fields are subject to water rate increases just like everyone else, which could cause a stir at the Atascadero City Council meeting Tuesday.
In 1913, Lewis established the water utility when he bought a 23,000-acre ranch along the Salinas River for his colony to be built upon.
Before he sliced it into smaller properties, he deeded the land’s agricultural water rights to the water company so the rights stayed inherently part of all the parcels in the colony, regardless of proximity to the river.
The City Council on Tuesday plans to discuss its intentions to meet with the utility’s board of directors to express concerns with a 15 percent water rate hike.
The water board in December unanimously approved the increase to cover rising operation costs. It began appearing on bills in February.
Tiers in the rate system encourage conservation, so those who use more water pay more.
The irrigation of city parks pushes Atascadero into paying top-tier rates that leave its budget in the red.
“The problem we have is we’re just under 20 acres of parks in the city, so real easy we ... pay top dollar,” Mayor Pro Tem Bob Kelley said.
In December, city staff asked the utility to consider capping Atascadero’s usage to the third tier.
“But I said I don’t feel the city is ready is yet because they have not maximized the efficiency of their irrigation system,” Atascadero Mutual Water Co. general manager John Neil said.
City staff told him that they have been working to conserve water by replacing aging sprinkler heads and moving to computerized irrigation systems, Neil said, but they are not yet finished.
“The board knows the city needs ball fields ... and you have to irrigate that turf,” Neil said, noting that further city infrastructure fixes can still be done.
But Kelley said it’s unfair to expect the city to fix its irrigation system at a quicker pace.
In the meantime, a rebate proposal from the utility for the city is in the works.
It would compare the city’s total water usage in the hot sunny months of June to September — the region’s peak usage period — to the same period from the previous three years.
“And if they save water, we’ll rebate the difference dollar per dollar,” Neil said.
Once city staff maxes out on its irrigation system efficiency, Neil said, he would then entertain a capped water tier proposal.City staff is also proposing to cut down its park irrigation by 15 percent to stay within budget.