The Cambrian

Cambria tweaks water allocation rules

Cambria’s drought-triggered water-use penalties were reduced slightly Thursday, May 22, when services district directors voted 3-1 to reduce some surcharges and eliminate the possibility of having water service turned off for any other reason than nonpayment of a bill.

During the six-hour meeting of the Cambria Community Services District Board of Directors, the board members also instructed staff about how to proceed with a proposed rate increase. Rates haven’t gone up for about five years, according to consultant Alex Handlers. He told directors May 19 that when the district’s current rates are adjusted for inflation, they are more than 20 percent lower than they were in 1993.

Board members chose to split its fiscal needs into two separate rate-hike actions, opting to focus time and effort now on one that would pay toward an emergency plant to provide additional water to the community by treating brackish water with desalination and other high-tech techniques.

Put on the back burner are rate increases to cover two other needs: replacement of aging infrastructure and to cover operating costs (the district has not covered costs of providing water and sewer service from what it charges for the services for several years; the difference has been made up by reserves and property taxes).

Staff is preparing the required documents that would be mailed to ratepayers to inform them about the hike and give them the opportunity to officially protest. The rush is on because the drought-stricken community could run dry this fall, possibly as early as late October or as late as December, depending on usage and rainfall. The plant, already under construction, is currently estimated to cost as much as $9 million. The district also is applying for grants.

Water conservation

According to district staff and directors, Cambrians’ water-conservation efforts thus far have been “amazing,” with usage in the March-April 2014 billing period about 38 percent lower than usage in the same period in 2013. The district’s production report shows that the amount of water delivered in April 2014 (35.43 acre feet) was the lowest on record since the summary table began in 1988, according to the staff report by Engineer Bob Gresens. Consumers used about 24 acre feet less in April this year, compared to last.

General Manager Jerry Gruber said that substantial a drop in water usage is especially astonishing because, even before the current drought crisis, Cambrians already were among California’s most water-conserving consumers.

Surcharges and penalties

Concerns had been raised primarily about the across-the-board fairness of the restrictions and penalties enacted as part of a Stage 3 water-shortage emergency in January. A Stage 3 declaration includes the most stringent mandated conservation measures. 

Director Muril Clift said ratepayers have been very vocal about the allocations of water and surcharges for use above those allocations. “I don’t think I’ve received as many postcards, emails, letters and conversations on an issue as I have on this, and not just from vacation-rental people … they say ‘I pay for my services, I pay my taxes but I feel I’m being treated differently.’”

However, at board meetings, among the most outspoken objectors about surcharges for those homeowners who exceed their assigned allocations of water have been people who own residences that they rent out on a short-term basis as vacation rentals. 

Among those were four of the five people who spoke during public comment on the allocation/surcharge issue Aug. 22. 

Because there is no permanent resident in vacation homes left vacant between visits or rented out to strangers on a short-term basis, each of those accounts was allocated a total of four units every two-month billing period — or about 3,000 gallons of water — before surcharges of from 500 to 1,000 percent per unit kicked in. (A 500-percent charge for one unit is $30.25.) A unit of water is 748 gallons.

Likewise, a home with one resident in it also was allocated four units, while a home with two fulltime residents was entitled to eight units per two-month billing period.

Among the 388 residential accounts that received surcharge penalties in the March-April billing, 80 were vacation-rental accounts, according to a report by Administrative Services Officer Monique Madrid. There were 42 commercial accounts that exceeded their allotments. Very few of those were restaurants, according to Director Michael Thompson, and he noted that at least one restaurant’s usage was substantially below its allocation. He also said that most of the surcharged residential accounts had exceeded their allocation “by one or two units. Very few accounts were really over” their allocations, triggering “exorbitant bills.”

The board’s decision was neither simple nor easy, and coming to it took nearly two hours of sometimes impassioned debate between the four directors. Board President Jim Bahringer was out of town due to family concerns.

Board members considered various possibilities and motions that included issuing the same base number of allocations to all residences and then allowing adding allocations for additional family members or medical exemptions. 

Director Amanda Rice disagreed fervently. She said changing the allocations would send the wrong message to state officials who are to consider giving a $3.75 million drought-relief grant to the district for the emergency water project. 

“Equity is critical, but this is crazy,” Rice said at one point. “We either have the water or we don’t … we have to stop trying to match the supply to the demand. Drought does not cause the water problem … drought exposes the problem.”

Vice President Gail Robinette seemed at first to favor the changes, then, after a quick break for directors to consult with staff and their attorney, she indicated she wanted to table the issue until Bahringer returns.

However, Gruber said a prompt decision was crucial because of the timing of grant applications and Proposition 218 filings.

Three of the four directors, with Rice dissenting, eventually voted to:

• Keep water allocations the same;

• Reduce initial penalties to a 100 percent surcharge for overages from five to eight units for single-person households, vacation homes and vacation rentals;

• Overages above eight units would trigger a 500 percent surcharge for single-person households, vacation homes, vacation rentals and homes with two fulltime residents. Surcharges for homes with more residents or medical exemptions would begin at 500 percent when their assigned water allocations were exceeded; and

• The directors eliminated the 1,000-percent penalty and the possibility of turning off the water service to a household that repeatedly exceeded its allocation. Thompson called those penalties “really draconian” and said of the shutoff threat that “from a health and safety standpoint, I don’t think we want to go to that extreme.”

Shortly before Rice cast the sole no vote, she said “I still think it’s a very bad idea, especially for keeping eligibility for the emergency grant.”

Gruber said of the final option, “I think it reaches a wonderful compromise … I do believe people will continue to conserve,” even without the more draconian penalties. “They’re committed.” 

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune