Guest Commentary:

Something bigger is better

By Sandra Bauer

We have lived in North Tustin (Sewer Service Area 7) since 1995. The Local Agency Formation Commission (Lafco) is currently determining whether East Orange County Water District (EOCWD) or Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) should maintain Service Area 7 in future years.  We have reviewed the EOCWD, IRWD and Lafco websites and believe that IRWD is best able to provide service.  

Sanitation experience: EOCWD provides water services to customers in and around Orange and Tustin. EOCWD provides no sewer services; its full-time staff of six includes no sewer crews or equipment. IRWD provides water and sewer services to customers in Tustin, Orange Park Acres, Irvine, Costa Mesa, Newport and Lake Forest. IRWD has a staff of about 350, including trained sanitation crews and sophisticated sanitation and recycling equipment. 

Sanitation rates: EOCWD indicates that it can provide sewer services to our area for a rate 10 percent lower than we currently pay to Orange County Water District (OCWD). IRWD indicates that it can provide sewer services to our area for a rate 50 percent lower.

Capital reserves for sewer improvements: EOCWD capital reserves for water services total less than $25 million; it has no reserves for sewer services.  EOCWD is uncertain whether reserves will be adequate to fund future improvements in its service area and indicates that it may need to borrow funds to do so. For fiscal year 2015-16, IRWD has capital reserves of $92 million for its sewer services (not including water).   

Wastewater reclamation: EOCWD and IRWD are both member agencies of OCWD, which enables both agencies to pump from the groundwater basin at favorable rates. As members, both agencies are equally vested in the success of OCWD basin management practices, including the Los Alamitos seawater intrusion barrier. IRWD and EOCWD have committed to continue sending flows from Service Area 7 to the Orange County Sanitation District; our treated sewer flows will provide benefits and conserve potable resources under either scenario.

Future regulations: Regulations governing sanitation and water services are extensive, and will become more extensive and costly as California’s population grows. IRWD has long engaged in policy and regulatory development at the state level, and has the funds, staffing and experience to influence future legislation to keep our costs low. EOCWD is a small agency with limited staff and declining reserves; it does not have the resources to significantly participate in proactive policy and legislation.

Local control: IRWD and EOCWD boards of directors have five members that live in the service area, are elected by other residents of the service area, and serve for four-year terms. Area 7 residents will have many opportunities to seek election as board members and participate in local control, whether through EOCWD or IRWD.  

Our future water service: Most important is the future of our water service.  Most of us in Area 7 want to replace Golden State (GSW) as our water supplier. GSW charges the highest water rates in Orange County: roughly $340 a month for a large lot, compared with $120 in IRWD and $250 in EOCWD. Ojai and Claremont are also trying to terminate Golden State in favor of local service.  Ojai’s legal battle (ratepayers have already paid over $7.3 million) reached a milestone this April. The Court of Appeals found that the Mello-Roos Act can be used to finance Casitas Municipal Water District’s acquisition of Golden State’s water system in Ojai using eminent domain; with Casitas, Ojai has had a very strong partner in this effort.  Both agencies are willing to help us, but only IRWD has the financial depth, staffing and legal resources (including eminent domain, if required) needed to win this battle. If our sewer services go to EOCWD, we will lose the chance to have IRWD as a powerful partner in our fight against Golden State. 

Sandra Bauer of North Tustin is a principal of Bauer Planning & Environmental Services, Inc., an environmental and planning consulting company.