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Update April 28: Despite strong public protest, Helix Water District approved eliminating agricultural meters for 900 customers and accepted other staff recommendations. Watch for details soon.


By Miriam Raftery April 26, 2009 (La Mesa)—Deluged by hundreds of calls from residents irate about steep rate increases for heavy water use, and by many seeking irrigation meters to qualify for cheaper water rates, Helix Water District’s Board of Directors will convene a special meeting at 2 p.m. Monday, April 27th.


The board will consider proposals to eliminate the heftiest Tier 5 price increases for “excessive” water users. Tier five rates as originally proposed would have penalized the heaviest water users by 30% to 165%, depending on which stage of drought level (1 through 4) is declared. But the board also plans to vote Monday on whether to take away irrigation meters (and cheaper irrigation rates) from single-family residences that don’t sell commercial agricultural products.


There are 900 irrigation meters in the district, and 13 customers that have a commercial operation which receive an agricultural rate. The move leaves homeowners with large lawns, orchards and gardens worried about how to protect landscaping including edible food crops for their families.


Mark Schuppert of unincorporated La Mesa, in written public comments, objects to the entire Tier Pricing structure, not just Tier 5. “The remaining tiers also place an unfair pricing burden on large families and large lot owners,” he writes. Citing Helix budget figures that estimate the average family uses 137 gallons a day, Schuppert concludes, “a family of five will use an average of 55 units per billing cycle and the resulting pricing increase will be 59% under current drought Level 2 conditions, not the 22% claimed by the District’s literature…and the proposed increase is not intended to reflect the entire increase that is coming in 2011.”


Schuppert further calculates rate increases for the average use of a five-person household would range from 30% to 147% under drought level conditions 1 through 4, based on the Helix Bill Estimator—and the average family of five will not approach Tier 5 rate levels proposed to be dropped. Thus Schuppert concludes, “The punitive pricing to larger families and owners of larger lots is discriminatory.”


Installing an irrigation meter costs $2,500 to $10,000—up until now, an option few homeowners would find cost effective. But with rate increases looming, Helix Water District has received a flood of requests from homeowners seeking to add irrigation meters.


Kristin Hobbs Kjaero of La Mesa, who has covered water issues previously for East County Magazine, now plans to speak out at Monday’s meeting on her own household’s behalf.


Kjaero also notes that in the Cities of La Mesa and El Cajon, sewer bills are based directly on Helix water bills; adding an irrigation meter gives households an option to be responsible for their own interests. If that option is eliminated, customers would be billed for services not rendered (i.e., irrigation water does not go into the sewer system for treatment), she notes. Whether the city of Lemon Grove have similar billing arrangements could not be verified at press deadline Sunday.


In an e-mail to ECM, Kjaero notes that Helix estimates that 60% of average water use goes to irrigation, and concludes, “As one of these households with an irrigation meter, I will understand if they take away my irrigation rate because they are doing away with a tiered system to be equitable and make ALL water one rate…but if they take away my irrigation meter they need to provide an alternative accounting system so my irrigation water doesn’t go onto my sewer bills."


Helix Water District Director Kathleen Coates Hedberg wrote that eliminating Tier 5 from the proposed domestic rate structure “helps, but it is NOT the ultimate solution in providing full equity across the board….” Hedberg, who voted against the initial proposed rate structure, added, “I understand that we have a water crisis, water is limited and it is more expensive, however, we can implement a water shortage rate schedule that is FAIR to all and would be similar to the one we have right now.”


Hedberg says that is what she will propose on Monday. “We do have time to get it right,” she adds, noting that Helix will not have to actually pay higher rates to the San Diego County Water Authority until at least September, and more likely January 2010. Rate increases from the County will occur in mid-May, she observes. “Then we can use real numbers—not estimates, and get this all right the second time around.”


The meeting, which is open to the public, will be held at 2 p.m. on Monday, April 27, in the Helix Water District Board Room, 7811 University Avenue, La Mesa.


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