By Lloyd G. Carter
In what promises to be a contentious event, the Fresno City Council has scheduled an Aug. 15 public hearing (in the City Council Chamber at 5 p.m.) on a proposal to double household water rates over the next four years to pay for infrastructure improvements and a new surface water treatment plant.
Mayor Ashley Swearingen and a majority of the City Council are still smarting after losing an election over whether the city should privatize its garbage collection service. Some activists in the battle against garbage collection privatization, including former Fresno County Supervisor Doug Vagim, say they will now try to block the rate increase by seeking a special election in 2014 to put the matter before city water customers.
If approved, the initial rate increases would take effect on Sept. 17. According to the city’s Web site, the groundwater aquifer beneath the city has been drawn down to record lows, dropping more than 100 feet since World War II. On June 26, the Council voted unanimously to initiate the public hearing process. The rate increases would affect commercial customers and homeowners. A typical homeowner’s water bill would rise from the current $24.49 a month (for a 6,000-square-foot lot) to $48.34 in mid-2016, when the last rate increase commences.
City Public Utilities Director Patrick Wiemiller said the city needs $410 million in infrastructure improvements, including a $226 million surface water (San Joaquin River water) treatment facility, $50 million for transmission pipelines from the new treatment plant, $33 million for water well construction, $10 million for a booster pump station, $7 million for recharge basins, $6.4 million for water main extensions, $4.1 million for downtown water system upgrades (some pipes are a century old) and $18 million for other water capital projects.
A volunteer citizens’ advisory committee established in 2009 recommended the infrastructure improvements.
The City’s water division Web site said those who protest the rate increases can file a written protest before the time set for the public hearing. “If written protests are filed by a majority of the affected property owners, the applicable proposed rate increases will not be imposed,” states the Fresno Bee’s Web site.
A written protest must include the Assessor’s Parcel Number. Tenants who pay the water fees are entitled to submit a written protest and appear at the public hearing. Only one protest per parcel will be counted. In other words, if 90 people in a large apartment complex all live on one parcel, only one vote (presumably the property owner’s) will be counted.
Vagim says there are about 130,000 city water customers but that there is “almost no chance” enough protests to exceed half the 130,000 will be generated. In an interview with the Fresno Bee, Vagim claimed that rate protesters can take a different tack under state law. If protesters gather about 4,900 signatures (5% of the voters), Vagim says, then protesters can force an election on the rate increase in the June 2014 primary election.
Vagim says he is not opposed to a new water treatment plant or infrastructure improvements provided the “right people” pick up the tab. Vagim says developers and new homeowners should be footing much of the bill.
Other rate protesters point out the many millions of dollars from the city treasury that have been expended on money-losing projects, including the Convention Center Parking Facility, the downtown Grizzlies stadium, redevelopment and the No Neighborhood Left Behind Program.
The biggest debt service draws on the general fund include the Convention Center, the Convention Center Parking Facility, the stadium and the No Neighborhood left Behind Program. Most of these debts will be carried by the general fund far into the future.
Under former Mayor Alan Autry, the city accumulated a $17 million rainy day fund, with proceeds coming from the general fund, grants, taxes and utility payments. That rainy day fund went into a “treasury pool.” It didn’t last long.
Midway through the Autry years, City Hall borrowed millions of dollars (via general obligation [GO] bonds) to build a huge parking garage at the Convention Center. The parking garage can’t generate enough money to make the bond payment so the City improperly started borrowing or “improperly dipping” into the “treasury pool” to make the parking garage bond payments. The parking division has a terrible debt that keeps getting bigger.
Fresno’s water division has been a source of controversy for decades. A decade ago, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a nationwide environmental group, issued a report card on drinking water in American cities and Fresno’s grade was “poor.” The NRDC report said Fresno had “many wells in which contamination [by pesticides, nitrates and industrial pollutants] exceeded EPA standards.”
In the year 2000, at least 38 of approximately 250 city wells were found to be contaminated with DBCP, PCE, EDB and TCE, according to the NRDC report. Fresno claimed it was meeting Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards by being allowed to average high contaminant readings with lower readings taken at other times during the year. Of course, under the city’s theory, if you happen to be drinking water when it exceeds contaminant levels then you are playing dice with your health. Fresno officials now claim all the seriously polluted wells have been taken out of production and water from operating wells meets all state and federal standards.
The federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires water purveyors to let customers know what pollutants or poisons are in their water. But the NRDC report said Fresno’s early 2000 era reports under the Safe Drinking Water Act right-to-know provisions “were less than direct, burying, obscuring, and even omitting findings about health effects of contaminants in city water supplies, printing misleading statements, and violating a number of right-to-know requirements.”
The NRDC said the city of Fresno “buried” health warnings for pregnant women regarding nitrates in city water supplies. Nitrates are extremely dangerous to infants and can cause death. Nitrates are a residue of fertilizers, animal waste and human waste. Exposure to nitrates, for even a short time, can trigger “blue baby syndrome” in newborns, blocking the ability of the body to hold oxygen and creating a blue appearance of the skin.
An environmental working group analysis of Fresno’s drinking water between 1998 and 2003 showed 31 contaminants in Fresno’s water supply, including five unregulated contaminants.
An Associated Press (AP) story published March 12, 2012, said San Joaquin Valley towns and rural areas still have a serious nitrate problem. The AP report said some wells in Fresno, which now has a population of half a million people, had numerous wells with nitrate contamination. City officials said nitrate-polluted wells have been taken out of service, or water from contaminated wells has been blended with higher quality water.
Other San Joaquin Valley cities and towns are also facing looming rate hikes to pay for long-delayed infrastructure improvements in their water delivery systems. In November 2009, the Clovis City Council voted unanimously to raise water rates 55% over four years. The rate increase will fund repayment of a $44.3 million bond for infrastructure improvements. The current average rate in Clovis is $28.92 per month.
Opponents of suggestions that the city of Fresno privatize its water system should take a look at Visalia. In May of this year, California Water Service Company requested a rate hike of 28.3% over three years. In a hearing before the California Public Utilities Commission, 250 Visalia residents showed up to protest the rate hike as did the city of Visalia. Cal Water is also seeking a 24.6% rate hike for Selma water company customers.
“I ask you, how greedy do Cal Water officials need to be?” Visalian Mark May asked. If granted, the rate hike would raise average water rates for a Visalia homeowner from $30.51 to $40.74 a month.
Paul Townsley, a Cal Water official, said about 60% of the rate increase is the result of declining water use in Visalia. Visalia City Council Member Steve Nelson responded, “Most people feel they are being penalized for conserving.”
Lloyd G. Carter has been writing about California water issues for 40 years. His Web site is www.lloydgcarter.com.