Over the Hill

Paso Robles’ water saga begins anew

The Paso Robles water-rate soap opera began a new season last week with many of the same actors in familiar roles.

The major difference was that last week’s episode wasn’t a public hearing; it was a “public workshop.” There was no actual proposed rate increase for opponents to denounce or declare illegal. The public was instead invited to suggest more agreeable ways of increasing water rates.

This soap opera started in 2004 when Paso Robles, Templeton, Atascadero and San Luis Obispo signed a contract to partner together in building a pipeline from Nacimiento Lake. Paso Robles agreed to take 4,000 acre-feet of Nacimiento water per year and to pay a proportionate share of the costs.

That sounded great. In the semiarid North County, you can’t have too much water. But building pipelines and water treatment plants costs millions. Paso Robles city officials planned to pay Paso’s share of the costs by increasing water rates. They have floated four water-rate proposals, but all four sank in squalls of protest. The last one went down in a referendum election last November.

Water is expected to start flowing through the Nacimiento pipeline this summer, but Paso Robles hasn’t even started building a treatment plant. It can’t afford to. Its present water-rate income is too low. And lake water must be treated before you drink it. So Paso Robles will soon be paying $5.5 million per year for water it can’t use.

Also, some of the city’s water system is old. The 4-million gallon reservoir on 21st Street is 85 years old. In 2004 it was pronounced at the end of its useful life.

Including the Nacimiento costs, city officials estimate their water department needs $13 million per year to operate. But current water rates only bring in $6.3 million.

A capacity crowd attended last week’s water-rate workshop. Council members carried in extra chairs. Some participants did present suggestions, such as eliminating the fixed portion of the rate. Others suggested tiered rates that are higher for bigger users. Others urged relief for low-income customers. One woman suggested reductions in the water department budget.

But some of the fervent opponents of past rate increases made no suggestions. They just continued insisting that the council lacks the legal power to raise water rates to build new waterworks.

John Borst, an opposition leader, accused the council of stealing. He said he saw the city’s continuing to collect the $18 fixed portion of the water rate as stealing. He admonished the council, “Thou shalt not steal.”

The council is expected to consider another water rate proposal Jan. 19.

Contact Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net.