In early September the San Lorenzo Valley Water District’s board of directors approved a five-year rate increase of 65%. In 2014 it was supposed to increase by 16%, 13% in 2015, 8% in 2016, 9% in 2017, and 9% in 2018. The money the water board obtained from this increase would cover a variety of both necessary and possibly unnecessary improvements.
One very necessary project that the rate increase will fund is upgrading and making necessary repairs on old equipment. In a water board press release from October 25th it is said that “much of the District’s water system is 72 years old”. New funds from the rate increase will cover repair and replacement of storage tanks, wells, mains and distribution lines, all key infrastructure elements. 75% of the current water storage tanks are steel that is experiencing corrosion, which if not taken care of can result in tainted water and structural failure. Another 25% of the storage tanks are redwood, which need to be replaced because they are leaking. The current water lines are experiencing low pressure during the summer, frequent leaks and breaks, and not enough water flow for the firefighters.
They also are required to implement watershed requirements, mostly just stream level gauges on some streams to make sure that the watershed wasn’t lowering water levels below what the fish need. Another project they will be improving and implementing is the emergency inertie. It will connect the different areas of the water district together so that backup supplies are available during an emergency. Ongoing watershed projects working to protect the environmental health of the local aquifer, fisheries and forested watersheds that supply water to the San Lorenzo Valley will also be financially supported by the rate increase.
Joni Martin, a local activist involved in the water rate increase opposition, observed at the community meeting with the watershed that main issue people had with the water rate increase was the for the “consolidated facilities”. Their plan was to make one main facility instead of their current setup of having a admin office in downtown Boulder Creek, an operations office across the street, and a storage area in Ben Lomond. They bought adjacent properties for this project in 2004 and 2005 and planned on renovating one building on the property to be their new administration building. The renovation would include building a large community meeting room that would be used for their board meetings among other functions. They also were going to add above ground fuel storage tanks.
The issue with this new “consolidated facilities” was the cost. Altogether the project was going to cost about $9 million, which was way more than it had to be. The design was over the top for what they needed, and could cost a fraction of the price they wanted us to pay. As Randal Brown, member of the water board, said, “The office campus plan is badly flawed. By temporarily shelving it, we could reduce the rate increase by 25 percent.” He voted against the rate increase because, “While there is reason to be concerned about the state of our infrastructure, the current five-year plan fails to respect the economic difficulties faced by our ratepayers.”
People opposed to the rate increase, most of whom were opposed because of the consolidated facilities costs, worked hard to spread the word about what was happening and how to stop it. By law, a rate increase automatically goes through unless 50% plus 1 of the property owners within the water district filed formal protest letters. A group called the Santa Cruz Watchdogs formed a website and Facebook page that provided information on which parts of the water districts decisions they were opposed to, and provided a “protest letter” that people could sign and send in. Volunteers also started handing out sample protest letters at local stores and in neighborhoods.
By the Protest Hearing on October 24th, when all the protest letters had to be turned in, 2,781 people had sent in letters, 900 short of the amount needed to prevent the rate increase. However, the board had been persuaded by public input, and voted unanimously to take out the consolidated facilities project from the rate increase. The rate increase will now be over the course of the next three years, rising by 14% on January 1st, 2014, 11% in 2015, and 11% in 2016. The board will also have a public meeting at least 120 days before the January 1st of 2015 and 2016 to get input on whether the full rate increase amount is necessary.