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By Miriam Raftery

June 4, 2009 (La Mesa)—Deluged by protests from ratepayers, the Helix Water District Board unveiled a new rate hike plan at its meeting yesterday. The new proposal differs dramatically from earlier plans, which had proposed hikes of up to 90% on some residential users. The new proposal would assess a 24% rate increase on all residential users, regardless of lot size or family size. (The full revised water rate proposal may be viewed in the Board packet here: http://www.hwd.com/board/pack060309.pdf.)

“I think it’s much better than it was,” said Dexter Levy, a a certified plumbing instructor and nephew of Rube Levy, co-developer of the California Water Project and an original director of the Helix Water Board. “I am very pleased with the fact that they reconsidered. Two presentations by the general public have been fantastic. It’s been good for the soul to know that the Board really did try.”

Levy had signed a cure-and-correct letter asking the board to take corrective action or face a lawsuit over alleged violation of state sunshine laws that protect public access. At the June 3rd meeting, the board agreed to take curative action on one point raised in Levy’s letter, reappointing ad hoc committee members named after an earlier meeting was adjourned, then reconvened after some audience members had left. (For previous coverage on this issue, including East County Magazine's joint investigation with Channel 10 News, see: http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/1165, http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/1164 and http://www.eastcountymagazine.org/?q=node/1187.)

The board also reached an agreement on the need for a level two drought declaration, and urged staff to prepare details for a declaration to be voted upon on June 17th. The Board is expected to formally adopt the proposed rate structure at that meeting as well.
Under level two drought restrictions, washing cars at home will be prohibited and irrigation watering for residents and businesses will be restricted to three days a week during summer months.

While some water districts in San Diego County have restricted watering in winter months to just one day a week, board members held a discussion and agreed that more frequent watering may be needed in East County, where temperatures can climb into the 90s even in mid-winter. Customers who have already installed conservation-oriented irrigation systems, such as drip or directional flow heads, are exempt from the water restrictions, though all users are asked to cut back water usage. Leaks must be fixed within 72 hours under the level two restrictions.

“We’ve been watching what all of the other water districts have been doing,” Weston said, then shared one piece of good news from the Metropolitan Water District. “The level of cuts are not as severe as they could be,” he said, adding that Helix will have its allotment slashed by 8%, just under the 10% that would trigger mandatory declaration of level two water restrictions.

Board member Kathleen Coates Hedberg noted that the District has achieved a 5.9% reduction in water use through April of this year through voluntary efforts by customers.

“We’re already doing very well,” she said. Hedberg also urged that if a three-day limit on watering each week is imposed, customers should be free to choose which three days to water their properties. Other board members indicated they would prefer designated days based on odd or even addresses.

While the plan calls for potentially steep fines to be levied as penalties against violators, “having staff to actually go out and be water police would be challenging,” district manager Mark Weston observed. The District will likely rely on voluntary compliance initially, but may respond to complaints by neighbors, several board members indicated.

But given continuing drought restrictions and cuts in water from state and county water authorities, Board chairman Richard Smith concluded, “It’s imperative to go to level two, whether we implement penalties or not.”

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