Drought Adds Urgency to Sierra Madre Water Funding Shortfall

Residents and businesses in the foothill community of Sierra Madre no longer face penalties for failure to meet water conservation goals, but conservation gains have slipped since the fees were rescinded

Drought conditions have increased the urgency for Sierra Madre to resolve water system funding issues, according to officials of the suburban foothill community.

Residents no longer face the risk of financial penalties if they fail to meet conservation goals. But they are being asked to consider a plan for multi-year water rate hikes that in the first year alone would raise rates up to 10 percent for half, and for some more than 30 percent. The result of a vote by mail is expected at the end of the month.

Current water rates do not cover the expenses of operating the system and delivering some two million gallons of water daily to the city's 11,000 residents, according to city officials.

In fact, they say the system has been operating at a loss for several years, drawing down a reserve fund, even when the city was able to rely entirely on its own groundwater reserves. The city needs money to pay the debt service on bonds issued to fund upgrades to the water system, including new reservoir tanks.

"We're in dire straights," councilman John Capoccia said.

Last year, groundwater levels dropped low enough that one of the city's four wells began pumping only air, and the city stopped drawing from the aquifer, according to Public Works Director John Inman.

"For all intents and purposes, we are now relying completely on imported water," Inman said.

Surface water imported through the San Gabriel Valley Water District costs the city two and a half times as much, he said.

"That is a large factor" in the city's need for additional water revenue, Inman said. The importing of surface water also led to a rash of complaints over discolored water coming out of taps.

Water officials traced this to chemical reactions of water pipes with disinfectants present in the imported water, and said it did not pose a health threat. Southern California is now in the midst of the supposed rainy season in a third consecutive year of below average precipitation.

In Fresno on Tuesday, Gov. Jerry Brown indicated he is nearing the point of declaring a drought emergency. Many cities still have in place conservation measures dating back to the last drought of 2007 to 2009.

Last Spring, the Sierra Madre City Council adopted a conservation ordinance that authorized the city to set conservation goals for water customers -- in most cases, usage reductions of 10 to 20 percent. What's more, the ordinance also enabled the city to impose financial penalties on customers who failed to meet their goals.

The penalty could have amounted to doubling the rate charged for all water used over the customer's assigned conservation goal. This aspect of the conservation measure was met with some vehement criticism. As it was, penalties were never actually imposed, and last October, the city council voted to rescind the penalty provision, shortly before moving forward with the rate increase proposal.

Through summer and into November, water customers overall had cut back 20 to 30 percent, Inman said.

But since then the water savings have dissipated and, in fact, the city is now using more water than it did this time last year, Inman said. Some see this as a response to the dropping of penalties.

"If there's no incentive, people won't do it," said Diana Bear, who moved to Sierra Madre last year.

However, Inman suspects a significant factor is the unseasonal warm and dry weather that -- more so than last winter -- has continued into the season when rain and cooler temperatures historically lead to less water usage. It's not that consumers are now using more water than in summer, he explained, but rather that their usage has not dropped off as in previous winters.

Across the city, browning grass marks the lawns of homeowners who have made significant cutbacks in landscape watering.

On Manzanita Street, Bear and husband Shawn Patterson say they've cut water usage 50 percent, but still have enough to irrigate their backyard garden. They figure their conservation is more than enough to offset the impact of a rate increase, and they support it.

"You get the water you pay for," Bear said.

The city is putting the issue before water customers under a procedure spelled out by Proposition 218. Customers need not vote to approve the new rate plan.

But it cannot be enacted if more than 50 percent of the city's some 3,700 water customers vote to oppose it. Voting by mail is underway and will end on Jan. 28. The sealed ballots will not be opened until then, and the city is not disclosing how many it has received so far.

A banner opposing any rate hikes has been placed in the front yard of an apartment building not far from City Hall on Sierra Madre Boulevard. Opinions pro and con could be found in the city's central square, known as Kersting Court.

"I would pay a reasonable increase, but not 20 percent," said resident Hakim, who said he has lived in Sierra Madre eight years and intends to vote against the rate increase.

Failure of the measure would leave the city few options, said Councilman Chris Koerber.

Under current projections, the water system's reserve fund would run out in 2016. In that case, the city likely would have to liquidate its water system, and turn over responsibilites to another district or private company.

The city remains hopeful that it some point, with wetter weather, the city's groundwater will recharge enough to resume pumping water to customers. That could push back the depletion of the water reserve fund, Inman and the councilmembers said, but a rate increase would still be required to pull the water budget out of red ink.

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