Catch-22: “A frustrating situation in which one is trapped by contradictory regulations or conditions.” (Dictionary.com.)
So let me get this straight. The governor (and persistent drought conditions) demands that Californians conserve water. Cambria residents not only answer the call, they go above and beyond what’s required. But because they’re conserving, they’re choking off the financial spigot that pays for the water they do get.
Put another way, Cambrians are charged based on the amount of water they use, and now that they’re using less, they have to pay more for what they’re getting.
That’s some reward for conservation.
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Imagine if everyone went on a health kick and stopped ordering from the local burger joint, but instead of trying to entice customers back with lower prices, the fast food place actually raised its prices to make up for the decline in customers. Chances are those customers would just laugh and grab themselves a salad from the establishment down the street, and the burger joint would go out of business.
Now imagine that the burger joint sold the only food in town, reduced the size of its portions and raised its prices. People would get pretty angry. That’s the kind of situation Cambrians are facing now: still mandated to conserve water, facing the prospect of higher prices and with few viable options (though catchment systems might help if El Niño comes through as promised).
It remains to be seen how angry water-conserving Cambrians will get about the proposed increase in water rates, but there’s already been some backlash. It’s fair to say that no one likes a Catch-22, and this rate increase looks an awful lot like one.
Reactions have ranged from fired up to resigned.
One Facebook user vowed to show up at a public hearing on rates Dec. 29, adding that “hell has no fury like a pissed off Cambria.”
The date of that hearing is the deadline to submit formal letters protesting the rate increase approved by services district board members on a 5-0 vote. The letters must total 50 percent plus one of the district’s parcels in order to halt that increase.
Michele Sherman, responding to a Facebook query by Cambrian reporter Kathe Tanner, had a different kind of response: “What incentive do I have for cutting back on my usage? I was trying very hard to restrict consumption. I am sad to say, I am no longer motivated.”
Cambrians have been uncommonly motivated to save water, cutting back by 43 percent between the second half of 2013 and the second half of the following year. Lately, however, they’ve been using more: CCSD General Manager Jerry Gruber said sales for September and October this year were 13 percent higher than last year. He added that he did not believe Cambrians would increase use to such an extent that the community would violate the governor’s mandate of 25 percent savings.
Will the proposed rate structure affect conservation?
When it comes to motivation, one aspect of the proposal is worth mentioning. As of now, the first four units of water in a two-month cycle have been included in the base rate charged by the district, with additional units costing more. Under the proposed increase, additional charges will start accumulating with the very first unit used, eliminating any incentive to keep use under those first four units. Had the district sought to continue encouraging conservation, it would have made sense to leave that incentive intact. But it didn’t, and that sends a message.
Will that message be met by a large-scale protest? That remains to be seen. The 50 percent-plus-one submission rate is a high bar for a written protest, but Santa Margarita residents turned in enough such forms to stop a proposed 32 percent rate increase there in September. Now, however, San Luis Obispo County has come back with new proposal to increase the rate by 35 percent because it needs some way to pay for water service to that community.
Like Cambria’s proposal, the Santa Margarita plan eliminates lower rates for those who conserve more water — in this case, by dumping a tiered rate system.
Public Works administrator Will Clemens explained the rationale by saying, “The majority of our costs are fixed,” and a community advisory committee “thought that the majority should pay the higher rates rather than higher users.”
There goes the incentive to conserve. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t we jumping the gun here? The state is still under a state mandate to conserve, we’re still in the midst of a drought, and the promised El Niño so far has consisted of a few sprinkles rather than a deluge. We’d be foolish to count our storm clouds before they burst.
Paso Robles just passed an ordinance to conserve water by banning front lawns on new homes. (But, by the way, the same city is also moving to increase its own water rates.)
The mixed messages — “Conserve!” vs. “Use more water or pay more!” — are flying fast and furious, with some of them seemingly coming from the same sources.
Meanwhile, the CCSD also sends out a bill to help pay for the water-treatment plant it built as a buffer against the drought. It’s a separate charge. But it could be argued that having such a buffer in place eases the need for incentives to conserve water (the governor’s mandate notwithstanding). And the proposed new rate structure, as noted, eliminates one of those incentives — with those who have been conserving the most water facing the biggest increase in their bills: potentially 116 percent.
Somehow, that just doesn’t seem right.
To be fair, the CCSD is facing a Catch-22 of its own, because it faces fixed costs — just as Santa Margarita does — and those costs exceed its revenues. Cambria’s water department isn’t self-supporting and needs infusions from the general fund to keep operating. Compounding the problem is that, according to Alex Handlers, the consultant who helped prepare the rate-increase proposal, 55 percent of customers are in the four-units-or-less category that would be eliminated.
Maybe rates have to go up, but shouldn’t there be another way to do it? It just seems that it could be done in such a way that it didn’t feel like Cambrians were being punished for being so downright fantastic at conserving water.