Paso Robles faces watershed moment over Nacimiento pipeline project

Voters in Paso Robles will decide Nov. 3 how to pay for their share of the Nacimiento Water Project.

The election will either leave Paso Robles with a long-term funding plan to pay for the water its already signed up to receive, or force it to find a new rate plan while tapping into its reserves when the bills start coming in 2010.

The water rates election comes after backlash from the Concerned Citizens for Paso Robles, a North County citizens group. Spokesman John Borst said his group believes the capital costs for the Nacimiento pipeline and related infrastructure require voter approval and should be presented as a special tax — not a charge on a water bill, among other arguments. His group’s petition drive last spring ultimately led to the issue going before the voters.

The city attorney has long said Paso Robles has acted within the law when it proposed rates to pay the costs.

Borst’s group has also claimed that the city’s 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water would only serve growth, and that current residents shouldn’t have to pay for future development.

However, City Manager Jim App said only half would go toward new development while the other half would supplement what current residents are using now. Levels in the Paso Robles groundwater basin are declining, according to city documents, and overdraft may occur if that continues.

“Our analysis, water pumping data and basin yield projections indicate a need for 2,000 acre-feet of (Nacimiento) water today for the current community,” he said. “And that is what the rates will pay for — one-half the amount to be delivered.”

The other 2,000 acre-feet is for growth, he said, but those new to town will pay per unit for the water through new connection fees approved last spring.

The rate plan before voters, a method called “pay as you go,” would raise the average family’s monthly water bill to $49.95 in 2010 and to $63.65 in 2013. Those sums include an $18 fixed rate per bill to pay for the infrastructure to get water to residents, plus a variable rate based on how much each household uses.

The rate increase is less than proposals previously knocked down by City Council.

In March, after the “pay as you go” rate went through the ordinance process, the Concerned Citizens collected enough petition signatures — 11.3 percent of registered voters — to protest it. That forced the City Council to vote for an election or start over to develop a new rate.

The council voted in June for an election, a $72,000 decision to be paid from the city’s water fund, which comes from customers. The councilmen didn’t want the extra expense of an election, but said city staff need time to think of a new payment plan if the measure fails.

The entire Nacimiento project costs $176 million and will serve other areas in the county. Paso Robles is responsible for an estimated $60.8 million.