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By Janis Russell and Miriam Raftery

May 21, 2015 (La Mesa)- At the board meeting yesterday, the Helix Water District board voted 4-1 for the drought action plan for increased public education and outreach, increased restrictions with two days/week for outdoor water use in tier 3, and a 10% penalty for using 31 units or more of water, effective starting with July 29th water bills.  The plan also limits watering to two days a week and cuts warning for water waste fines to just one courtesy letter. View the resolution here.

Tier-3 users will be charged 10% on water over 30 units each two-month billing period, but will not be charged 10% on the first 30 units, Mike Uhrhammer, senior public affairs representative at Helix, told ECM.  A person who exceeds the limit by 1 unit would pay 55 cents; while 50 units would be $11.02, for instance. See chart above left for details.  Average water use is 26 units over two months for the district.

“There is a variance procedure,” Uhrhammer said, citing a need to irrigate for defensible space or erosion control and undue hardships as examples. The penalties will not apply to tier 1, which is considered essential indoor water use level, or tier 2. Tier 3 is targeted because these residents use water mostly outdoors and the state is pushing districts to encourage homeowners to limit ornamental landscaping.

Fines for water waste are separate from the 10% penalty. Fines will be assessed only for blatant water waste such as running sprinklers after a rainfall or allowing large amounts of water to run off.  Fines start at $100 and can be up to $500 for a third offense.

The district has previously raised objections to the Governor’s executive order, with former chair Mark Weston traveling to Sacramento to make the case in person.  Uhrhammer notes that the state’s order “is comparing all water agencies in the state, yet we have a different climate, evaporation rate, and lot size” than agencies in some other regions. 

Helix Water District has added a third staffer to assist ratepayers who need help to cut their water use.  “You just call us up, we come out and monitor your water use,” Uhrhammer said. That includes indoor and outdoor water use, checking for leaks and making recommendations as part of the free service.

There are also rebates for items ranging from rain barrels to removing turf.  Even if rebates run out, Uhrhammer advises calling back as new rebates are being added frequently as additional funds become available.

At the meeting, Jennifer Bryant, the district’s finance manager, summarized outcomes from a special meeting last week when the board looked at this item. Michelle Curtis, water conservation specialist, gave the same PowerPoint presentation she gave last week. Regarding the two days/week for outdoor water use, Curtis said there are variances for public parks and school playing fields. These places would still follow the same outdoor water restriction, but the district is willing to work with these areas and consider some adjustments to allow continuation of the benefit these offer.

Two people spoke from the public, both of whom were at last week’s meeting.

Gordon Place proposed that if the board passed the recommendation, then it should be open later for further consideration for water reduction for all classes and not just tier 3. He also recommended taking out the 10% penalty.

Larry Nichols then gave his views. He also didn’t like the penalty and said  that punishing tier 3 is unfair.

When board president De Ana Verbeke asked for clarification on the tier 3 penalty, Bryant explained that the state mandate focused on outdoor water use, the bulk of which is used by tier 3. Curtis added that homeowners fall into tier 3 and not under the exemption of parks. 

Director Joel Scalzetti thinks there should be more than a courtesy notice and violation. He also argued for the unfairness of the tier 3 penalty. He pointed out that Helix is the only agency to propose a penalty. He argued that customers are already doing a great job with conservation.

General manager Carlos V. Lugo agreed that customers have been proactive, but it would be best to implement the governor’s executive order. “We’re demonstrating compliance,” he stated, noting the approaching June 1 date.

Bryant also pointed out that they would need to test out the summer months when water usage is the greatest.

Kelly Salt, an attorney from Best, Best and Krieger, mentioned that the Santa Fe District is also looking into penalties.

Curtis said that their fine policy is in effect now, but again their intent is to try to educate.

Scalzetti didn’t think it was necessary to cut out one courtesy notice, and go from a courtesy notice to a violation. Lugo told Scalzetti that the district has been lenient with customers when applying for fines. Curtis said that they have received no fines and customers have eventually reached out after quite some time since getting the notice. But they need to tighten up restrictions so they can meet the 20% goal.

Director Kathleen Coats Hedberg suggested that by just punishing tier 3, then tiers 1 and 2 wouldn’t conserve. She wanted to support the plan, but also recommended bringing this back in two months when getting new data. Then they can “look at the trends of water reduction. Maybe the penalty can be reduced to 0% in a few months.”

Lugo agrees that they could still monitor this and they’re open to change if something they’re doing doesn’t work.

With regards to notifying the public, Curtis said they’re in the process of putting together a call-em-all which will go out to all customers this Saturday May 23. Then mailings will be sent out and explain the 20% goal and restrictions in the next two billing periods (four months). Hopefully mailers will also be sent out next week.

Vice President Charles W. Muse wanted to adopt this, and director John B. Linden seconded the motion.

Scalzetti thinks they’re moving too quick and wants to give this another 14-30 days to modify.

Coates-Hedberg proposed a modified solution, where the board  would adopt the plan for conservation but not penalize tier 3. Scalzeti seconded. The vote was 2-3 with Verbeke, Linden, and Muse voting against.

Then the board voted to adopt the original plan as stated with increased public education and outreach, increased restrictions, and the 10% penalty. The vote was 4-1 with Scalzetti against.

For information on last week’s meeting, view the article: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/helix-water-board-weighs-fines-excess-water-use-additional-drought-actions.

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And rate increases?

Seems like if we reduce water usage, that cuts income to the District. Which means they're likely to raise rates to make up for a shortfall in income. So I'm hoping they will avoid rate increases by using the penalty income in its place.

A court ruling held that charging over cost of water is illegal

in CA, at least in one water district that did it.  Citizens, ask your water districts for the cost of water for each tier vs. how much they are charging ratepayers. Send me the results in any districts and we will happily publish them. I suspect there are some out there that may be in violation, assuming that ruling is upheld on appeal.