Do you think the rates crafted to pay for Davis’ river water diversion project are fair?
That’s the question behind Measure P, the initiative that allows the community to weigh in on the city’s current and future water rate structure.
Proponents say the measure gives democracy a chance to decide the rates’ fate. Opponents say it’s far more than an unnecessary revisiting of a process that involved the community already — it could destroy the project.
At first, the water rates enacted by the city to pay for a Sacramento River water diversion project would triple the cost of the average homeowners’ 2013 water bills by 2018. However, the city embarked on a process this week that could reduce future cumulative increases by 8 percent.
Why pay more?
The water rates that residents are paying now and the potentially more expensive consumption-based rates that take effect in January were recommended two years ago by the city’s Water Advisory Committee. The City Council approved the rates using a Proposition 218 process that included giving property owners a chance to protest in writing.
As the council members point out in their ballot argument, Yolo Superior Court Judge Dan Maguire ruled against the most substantive claims of a lawsuit against the water rates in late January. Other aspects of the case will be decided after a trial scheduled for Nov. 5-7.
“Opponents of these approved rates are challenging them yet again,” Measure P opponents’ ballot argument reads. “We urge you to vote ‘no’ to end the delay tactics.”
The cities of Davis and Woodland are partnering on a $228 million Sacramento River water diversion project that was approved by Davis voters in March 2013 as Measure I.
Now, with the project having broken ground this month and the train leaving the station on Davis’ estimated roughly $107 million share of the cost of the project, the water rates that could burden the average homeowner are set to pay the bills.
However, the consumption-based rates, as the name implies, base their price on water usage through the dry six months of May through October. That allows residents to set, partially, the rate for the rainy and dry months for the next year.
Why reject the rates?
Some proponents of the initiative, like Ernie Head, have admitted that their efforts are an attempt to derail the project entirely. Many other Measure P supporters focus instead on the fairness of a consumption-based rate, which bases an entire year’s rates on only six months of use.
Former Mayor Sue Greenwald and economist Mark Siegler, vice chair of the Water Advisory Committee, say voters should approve Measure P to spur the City Council to revisit the consumption-based model and work up a 12-month measurement, instead of the six-month summertime measure.
“The new CBFR water rate structure is extremely punitive to those who use more water in summer, as it relies on summer water use to determine year-round rates,” proponents say in their ballot arguments. “However, there is no evidence that provision of summer water is significantly more costly. The rates, therefore, are arbitrary and unfair and will create great discrepancies unrelated to ratepayer income. … We cannot conserve our way out of higher bills.”
If Measure P passes, the rates will be reconfigured by the City Council, going through another Prop. 218 process. If Measure P is defeated, water rate opponents lose one more battle, but not the war. That will be decided if the lawsuit against the rates is wholly defeated at trial this fall and if there is no appeal.
Will Measure P kill the water project?
Opponents of Measure P and city staff say approval of Measure P will cause a default on the city’s obligations to the water project, resulting in costs that far exceed Davis’ $107 million share.
In a presentation to the City Council this week, Herb Niederberger, the city’s general manager of utilities development and operations, said if Davis defaults, it would owe damages to Woodland of $50 million. In addition, Davis would end up paying $100 million more over the long term because of missed opportunities to get low-interest rates.
Niederberger also said there will be no major impact if large irrigators — like the city itself, the Davis school district, Village Homes and El Macero — opt out of the surface water project and use well water instead. He said that’s because the city had figured on that when it set the rates.
That seemingly deflates a major plank of the campaign to pass Measure P. Nancy Price, a major Measure P booster, told the council she did not see any reason why the consumption-based rates could have anticipated an exodus of the best customers.
Price, Greenwald and others have said that if the large irrigators opt out, the cost burden will fall even heavier on the remaining ratepayers.
— Reach Dave Ryan at email@example.com or 530-747-8057. Follow him on Twitter at @davewritesnews