Water, lifeblood of the state, gets ever costlier

Water, always at the core of California’s political and social fabric, is becoming even more precious as the population expands and the infrastructure withers.

Aging infrastructure – the pipelines, the troughs, the reservoirs, the flumes — tops a long to-do list and carries a price tag that points to bigger water bills for families and business across the state.

“There has been a trend,” says Lisa Lien-Mager of the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), “where basically every aspect of delivering safe drinking water is becoming more expensive.”

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the huge wholesaler that through its member agencies supplies some 18 million people with drinking water across the south state, announced in its two-year budget a 5 percent rate increase for the 2012-2013 water year and another in 2013-2014.  In raw dollars, the MWD’s cost of refurbishing and replacing its infrastructure has risen 10-fold in little more than a decade.

The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, serving 2.4 million people in the Bay Area, has increased water and sewer rates an average of 10 percent for single-family homes and 12 percent for multi-family buildings every year since 2009.

In the state capital, the Department of Utilities’ July rate increase of 10 percent for water and wastewater will be followed by 15 percent and 14 percent increases in the next two years, respectively.

The system of aqueducts, reservoirs, pipes and pumping stations that delivers water throughout California represents a triumph of human engineering over geographic obstacles. It sustains California despite the basic contradiction that California is a state in which most of the rain falls in the north but most of the people live in the south. Indeed, three out of every four gallons of water comes from north of Sacramento, while 80 percent of the consumption of that water occurs in the lower two-thirds of the state.

By one estimate, California’s water infrastructure delivers or controls some 40 million acre-feet of water – an acre-foot is roughly the amount of water a family of four uses in a year, or about 326,000 gallons – and most of the water is used by farmers. The water currently serves some 38 million people — and probably 42 million by the end of the decade.

Much of this tangled infrastructure is decades old. A comprehensive fix could cost $20 billion, but that is only a partial figure myriad local projects.

And agencies that supply water typically cite the maintenance and upgrade of this infrastructure as the reasons for increasing water bills.

San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission, for instance, is in the middle of a $4.6 billion Water System Improvement Plan, adding safeguards and backups and improving the seismic resilience of its pipelines to make the Bay Area’s water supply more reliable. The money for the renovations comes from a voter-approved bond measure, with the cost ultimately passed on to ratepayers.

To the south, ever-larger slices of the budget are eaten up by the maintenance of existing hydro-engineering works, many of which predate World War II.

In the MWD’s 2012-2014 budget blueprint, General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger noted that “In fiscal year 1998-99, the district spent $30 million a year — 5 percent of total capital expenditures — to sustain our water system. By comparison, we estimate spending more than $280 million — more than 50 percent of our capital budget — on refurbishment and replacement over the next two years.”

In addition to infrastructure maintenance, a variety of other expenses have been emerging in the conveyance and distribution of water. One is the increasingly stringent purity requirements.

“A few decades ago, water suppliers had 22 regulated contaminants to monitor and treat for if necessary.” says Mager. “Now there are 90.” Each new contaminant added to the list can cost water agencies millions in initial capital to add new treatment systems, to say nothing of the added annual expenditures to operate them.

Invasive species can also cause problems, as in the case of the quagga mussels and their unfortunate habit of colonizing water intake pipes. The MWD has already spent some $30 million total battling the spread of the mussels, first discovered in a Colorado reservoir in 2007.

Another pricing problem has to do with metering and the fear of shortage.

The limited supply of water has been made more acute by recent environmental concerns in the San Joaquin-Sacramento River delta and elsewhere, where state and federal rules protecting local ecosystems limit the amount of water that can be exported.

The state has also been dry. A series of wet years beginning in 2009 left California’s elaborate system of reservoirs and water banks brimming, but the latest weather cycle has proven much drier than average.

“Last year at this time we still had about 135 percent of average in terms of state-wide reservoir storage” says Jeanine Jones, Interstate Resources Manager for the Department of Water Resources, “this year, we’re going into the new water year with 95 percent, so we’re a little bit behind the curve.”

Jones says that aside from dry-land agriculture, the dry spell has not yet been severe enough to affect most people. Yet because of the potential for water shortage, the consistent refrain across the patchwork of utility departments, water companies, contractors and wholesalers that provide water to California’s homes has been for customers to use less.

The practice of metering, charging water users by the amount they individually use rather than by a flat rate, was conceived as an attempt to reduce usage.

But metering leads to something of an economic paradox.

The more ratepayers reduce their water usage, their monthly bills go down and the less money the suppliers collect to service bonds, pay for maintenance and meet other expenses. 

In order to cover consistent costs with an inconsistent revenue source, rates have to go up. By demanding less water, the cities make it more expensive. Ratepayers, facing bills they often consider exorbitant — $100 monthly tabs are not uncommon — are not happy. 

“It’s a problem,” Mager admits. “The thing is helping people to think about paying for water not just as a bought-and-sold commodity, but as paying in to this much larger system. Even though the cost of delivering high-quality, reliable water is on the rise, we think tap water service is still a great value.”

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