July 2015

Golden State Water meeting leaves customers awash in wariness

By Tina Richards

Golden State Water (GSW) stuck fast to the subject of conservation and restricted use of the resource during a meeting it hosted for customers in North Tustin, June 4.

Despite numerous audience questions regarding the private utility’s higher-than-average rates and annual increases rubberstamped by the public utilities commission. Ken Vecchiarelli, Golden State’s Orange County district general manager deflected those queries and steered the conversation back to the 36 percent decrease in water use mandated by the state.

“If you want to talk about rates, we’ll have a separate meeting for that,” he said several times to a packed house of Cowan Heights, Lemon Heights and Rocking Horse Ridge customers. “That’s not why we’re here tonight.” 

Odds and evens
After pointing out that Cowan Heights is in the top three – statewide -- of gallons used per household per day, Vecchiarelli laid the ground rules for voluntary cutbacks.  Because outdoor usage accounts for up to 50 percent of a residence’s water use, GSW customers are being asked to limit irrigation to two days per week.  Odd-numbered addresses may water between 7 p.m. and 8 a.m. on Tuesday and Saturday, even-numbered addresses on Wednesday and Sunday. 

For now, the restrictions are voluntary.  “We don’t want to be water cops,” he said.  But if users don’t comply, the next stage will involve penalties.  In stage two, an additional $2.50 per ccf (748 gallons) will be charged; stage three is $5 and stage four is $10. Those who continue to exceed their baseline (36 percent of 2013 use), may be further penalized with water flow restrictors or have their water turned off.  “But we don’t want to do that, “Vecchiarelli emphasized.

Residents asked if swimming pools were being restricted (no, not yet); if there would be an appeal process (yes, in stage two); if GSW’s pipes would break with everyone watering on the same day as they have done in L.A. (no, local pipes are not as old as the ones that burst); and if water bills would go down (yes, but not by 36 percent).

Trickle down, pay up
The acknowledgement that a 36 percent decrease in use would not be mirrored by a 36 percent decrease in costs garnered the most attention.  A surcharge will likely be applied to water bills to cover GSW’s operating and maintenance costs.  While Golden State’s expenses will go down, they won’t make up for the 36 percent loss in revenue. “Golden State is entitled to the revenue,” Vecchiarelli said. “We will add the difference to your bill in the WRAM.” The Water Revenue Adjustment Mechanism is a public utilities commission- sanctioned surcharge.  Further, Golden State is, according to the district general manager, allowed to make an eight percent profit to return to shareholders.

Unhappy customers noted that GSW’s rates already go up every year, as much as 800 percent in some cases.  Many others cited the unfairness of the company’s rate schedule, and wondered how it could justify charging North Tustin customers so much more than neighboring water agencies.

Before declaring that rates would not be addressed at that evening’s meeting, Vecchiarelli explained that pumping “six tons of water uphill” costs more than moving it horizontally.  That led to yet another “rate” comment from a customer who asked why other hilltop areas, where water was presumably pumped up, “don’t pay as much as us.”

GSW will let its customers know what their individual baselines are within the next few weeks.  They can track their progress by routinely reading their meters.  The company will publish monthly usage numbers on its website to keep everyone informed.  If voluntary cutbacks are insufficient, GSW will look to a stage two scenario, which it says would not be implemented in less than 45 days from the onset of stage one.