Clovis water savers soon won’t benefit from lower rates

In a move that even Clovis city officials agree is unlikely to bolster water conservation efforts, the city is changing its water rate structure so that residents using less will pay more.

New rates will go into effect July 1 if the City Council approves them Monday night.

Many customers’ water bills will remain similar, those who use the most water will likely see lower rates and those using the least water will get billed more. The proposal has prompted outraged opposition from residents, many of whom already have taken steps to be more water-thrifty.

The new rates were necessary because of a legal ruling last year that said certain tiered rate systems are illegal. The Clovis model was not challenged.

The ruling was based on Proposition 218, which says that government can only charge a fee to cover the cost of that service. Those using more water in San Juan Capistrano sued, alleging the city’s conservation efforts – charging lower water rates to those who use less – were unconstitutional. Courts sided with them.

Users paying significantly higher rates because they used more water claimed that the difference in rates was not justified based on the costs to the city.

The lawsuit’s outcome led cities to examine their tiered-rate systems, Clovis among them. Clovis hired a consulting firm that suggested methods for the city to change its billing system and avoid a legal challenge.

“Many agencies are looking closely at their rate structures, and many are moving forward to making those changes or increasing rates,” said Lisa Lien-Mager, director of communications with the Association of California Water Agencies in Sacramento.

The Clovis consultant’s report said the new billing system is intended to proportionately divide costs for each customer’s class based on the demand they place on the system.

The new rates will increase water costs for hundreds, possibly thousands, of water users who have been doing the most to conserve.

“Intuitively, it would seem, we would not want to do that,” said Luke Serpa, the city’s public utilities director. “We are constrained by Proposition 218, and those constraints require us to charge what the service costs to deliver.”

Clovis will collect about the same amount of money next fiscal year under the new rate structure as it did this year, he said.

Whether the changes will affect the city’s efforts to conserve water – the city will have to use 33 percent less water this year than in 2013 – isn’t clear, but one thing is, said Serpa: “You can’t do tiered rates solely as justification for conservation.”

Residents respond

When the city sent letters to all residents outlining its plans to change the structure of the city’s water rates, the outcome was predictable.

About 300 letters or emails have been sent to Clovis City Hall opposing the rates and questioning why those using less water are bearing the greatest burden.

Someone who uses up to 10,000 gallons every two months pays the base rate of $16.80.

But under the new system, a new base rate is set at $21.22. In addition, all users pay 86 cents per thousand gallons up to 23,000 gallons every two months. A bill for a 10,000-gallon user will rise to $29.82, a 78 percent increase. If a drought is declared, the city’s rates rise to $1.04 per 1,000 gallons.

Residents using the average amount, about 27,000 gallons, will see little price change under normal circumstances. Under drought conditions, they will pay about 10 percent more.

Bob Cline, who lives in northwest Clovis, bought a small-lot home to conserve and keep his water rates down.

“It’s one of the reasons we didn’t put any lawn in,” he said. “We just have some plants.” Cline says it’s unfair of the city to penalize water misers.

He said he told neighbors about the new rates and hopes enough of them will oppose the plan.

“I wanted to see if we could get enough people to complain, but it’s going to happen anyway,” he said.

Clovis resident Chris Theile said he is most concerned about a 3 percent annual escalation that is part of the city’s rate proposal.

“In 10 years, you’re going to pay 30 percent more than you do today,” he said.

Theile said he uses about 12,000 gallons in a two-month billing cycle, which means his bill will rise from a little over $20 to about $31.50.

He said the increase should be placed on an election ballot for Clovis residents to decide.

“Any government that can go 3 percent a year is never going to give it back,” he said.

But Serpa said the city will try to keep rate increases to a minimum. He said the city had rate increases planned for trash in recent years, but once there was enough money to cover operations, it decided against raising them.

Conservation is the key

Just north of Clovis High School, residents in a long-established neighborhood on Amber Avenue are busy getting ready for summer by finishing up yard projects. Of about 20 homes, nearly half of the owners have done something, and Melinda Peyret says others are considering it.

One driveway has piles of rocks ready to go into the yard, and a nearby yard has bare dirt where lawn used to be. Others have added synthetic lawns or placed river rock where grass once grew.

“What you’ll find here is, we do communicate,” she said of her neighbors. “It becomes kind of contagious. It creates inspiration.”

She estimates her water use is about 14,000 gallons every two months, and her cost under the new rate structure will rise about $10 every other month, about 40 percent. But that isn’t her main concern.

Because Peyret was trying to conserve water in the drought, “I couldn’t keep my yard alive,” she said. “My trees, bushes and shrubs were more important than keeping my grass alive.”

Peyret paid $2,400 to make the changes and got $1,400 back in state rebates.

She doesn’t want her water rates going up since she already has put in drip irrigation and rocks where her lawn once grew, but her real goal is saving water.

“I know the amount of water I used dropped drastically, but I’m not sure the price dropped,” Peyret said. “I’ve taken proactive measures to make sure I’m not drastically affected” by rate hikes.

Across the street, Robert Lutz put rocks and drought-tolerant plants in his front yard and also replaced lawn in the back. The cost of water, he said, was incidental to his primary purpose.

“My reasoning wasn’t necessarily to save water, mine was to save work,” Lutz said. “When we decided to do it, we realized we could eliminate watering along with mowing and edging – it just made sense.”

About 2 miles away, Mark Stephens is digging holes for mostly drought-resistant plants in front of his nearly-new home. He eventually will add drip irrigation and put wood chips around the plants to replace his front yard grass.

The heavy digging and planting he has done in recent weeks isn’t about saving money but conserving water, because he is bothered by watching water from sprinklers running down gutters from overwatering.

“I like a lawn, I grew up with a lawn,” he said, “but it’s not practical anymore when you live in a desert.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

If you go

Clovis City Council meets at 6 p.m. Monday in Clovis City Council chambers, 1033 Fifth St., in Clovis.

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