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November, 2003

MMWD Defends Rate Hike System
By Carol Sterritt

From time to time a reporter must look beyond personal prejudices and play "devil's advocate" in terms of important issues. Here in Marin, almost everyone believes that he or she is an environmentalist. Unfortunately, being ecology-minded does not mean that issues are thought through completely, consistently or coherently. One needs only attend a few "Peace and Social Justice" meetings to realize that many environmentalists feel abundant immigration is good, but housing development is bad. Such good-willed, but sloppy thinking, can allow equally sloppy social planning.

Few issues rank as important as a society's need for water. Recently the Marin Municipal Water District (MMWD) approved the rate hikes discussed in last month's Coastal Post. For residential customers, the rate hikes break down as follows: There will be a 6 to 7 percent increase in water rates (a bit under $5.00) for those households that fall into Tier 1 customer base. This segment of water users, who consume about 13,464 gallons every two months, comprise sixty-four percent of MMWD's customer base.

Customers who fall into Tier II, using 38,148 gallons every two months, will see their bills increase about $30. These customers comprise 31 percent of all users. The customers in Tier III will see their bills rise to about $220, and they will be using roughly 97,000 gallons every two months to belong to that group. The customers who will feel the most pain under the new rates are the residential users who use high amounts of water- over 144,000 gallons every two months. They will now be lumped into a new group of users, called Tier IV, and will be pummeled by an increase of some $ 640 dollars. Ouch! (The top two tiers, III and IV, hold about five percent of all Marin Households.)

However, Marin County business users will experience a flat rate hike of ten percent.

In last month's article, I posed a series of questions that led me to compose an email interview with Charles McGlashan, who serves as President of the Board of Directors for MMWD. Here are parts of that email interview:

MY QUERY #1: -with some background-I once was a water conservation freak. Part of the reason was that I believed at the time (during the mid-eighties) that MMWD looked to the public's conservation efforts-and because of these efforts, MMWD would stymie growth. Now it might be true that here in Marin, housing tracts were discouraged in the 1980's. But sometime in the late 1980's I started to look around and realize that many of the places that might have become housing tracts had business complexes built there instead. In fact the growth of business units seemed astounding in terms of the number of units built, and the congestion it brought and also in terms of the water usage. So was there ever a chance that MMWD could have disallowed any of these new business developments from connecting into the water and sewage system? McGlashan: It is illegal for MMWD to make any growth or land use decisions (i.e. those decisions by law must be made by the municipalities themselves, and MMWD is mandated to supply water, no matter what).

We are allowed to decide how, and how much, to charge for supplying the water. However, the rate of growth, of all types (business and homes) has been very low in Marin. And the main use of water, about 90%, is in the single family homes of Marin. The increased use of water has come as a result of more landscape water consumption. People have relaxed in their conservation discipline, and per capita use has gone up over the past nine years. As a result, while it looks like there is plenty of water, we are beyond our capacity, importing water from the impaired region of the Russian River. There is distressing news that our supply from Sonoma will be cut over time, since their growth has been high, and the ability of the River to supply water is impaired.

QUERY #2: Does MMWD take into consideration that a gallon of water saved might not mean anything in terms of the overall environment. Example-a young family has a toddler and infant. They would like to have both children wearing cloth diapers. But they become alarmed re: water rates, and start purchasing Pampers. So, in terms of their own individual water meter, they are "using" less water. But someone who produces the plastic diaper had to use water to make the diaper. And the diaper is going to go into landfill. So what have we saved?

McGlashan: That could be true, and that sort of life cycle thinking is very important. But in our region the important water consumption is coming from landscape water use in summer. Small families don't use much, and the rate change will be virtually undetectable by people who use their water for in-house family needs. The large landscape water consumers will feel the new pricing. Many of these consumers are using so much water (in some cases over 350,000 gallons each month), that they might not even notice the change in rates. We need to send the signal that conservation is key since now MMWD has to look for more, and very expensive, water supply, driven by the use of water for gardens in summer.

Our water use doubles in summer when we all start watering our plants. Not a bad thing, but it is forcing us to consider desalination, since the Russian River is in such bad shape. (My note: Many County residents are unaware that under the contract existing between MMWD and Sonoma County, MMWD's water rights (to the Russian River water system) can be severely restricted when Sonoma County needs water due to a drought.) QUERY #3: In the Independent Journal piece on the rate hikes, it was said that the real reason for hikes was an increase in expenses that MMWD faces. So what is this total overall increase (in dollars and cents) that is leading to the rate hike? McGlashan: About 10 percent. The main component, as in so many businesses, is found in health insurance and workmen's compensation insurance. We haven't moved rates in over 6 years, and these costs keep rising by over 5% each year.

Another source of cost increase is new pipeline work around the District in reducing leaks in the system and improving water quality testing. We conduct over 100,000 water tests each year to ensure secure, safe water. The staff has done a hard job holding rates down over the years by cutting staff and costs elsewhere.

QUERY #4-In terms of water evaporation-does it mean anything to conserve "a gallon of water this year for use next year?" I have discussed this issue with several of the people quoted in one of the IJ issues. Some people did not accept my portrayal of the way that water evaporates, which depends on the observation that according to the laws of physics re: conservation, nothing is ever lost. My belief: When I water my yard, the water droplet either evaporates as it is sprayed, or goes into the ground and the resulting water table, in my case an underground spring on this property, or the individual water droplet goes into the plant itself (uptake through leaves and root) and thereby helps the plant cycle through its photosynthesis cycle and produce oxygen. The water that evaporates and goes into the water table very likely ends up being rain. It is not lost! Also as I pointed out in my article, it affects climate, as you see the little microclimates above the landscape oases when flying over the hot barren Great Plains states. Now some people don't agree with me about evaporation. They say that water in a reservoir does not evaporate. BUT they also say that since our reservoirs are at 80% capacity, we'd need several years of drought before this capacity was diminished. So even though they don't agree with me, they definitely do not buy into MMWD's theory. What exactly does MMWD believe?

McGlashan: All true, but in terms of finding water for the hoses and faucets we need, the local concentrated supply, or what we can pump to people's homes, is critical. While a water cycle is critical for the environment at large, unless there's water in our system, we can't clean it and deliver it. Our lakes can supply us for two dry summers. Then we're out. Our problem is that when the rains stop in April or May of one year, we never know if that's the beginning of a long drought. It immediately gets scary if the rains don't come back on time that next Fall. With climate change coming, the variation in dryness and hard rains will make managing water supply more difficult over the next 50 years. The State's new Water Plan Update recommends that all water districts employ various sources of water. As in a stock portfolio, water supply should be as diverse as possible, so that if one fails (like importing from the Russian River), we can turn to others (like conserving more on a routine basis, or desalinization, or more recycled water). MMWD is working on all these sources of water now.

For me, the points that stand out in these replies are these: the rate hikes are taking effect because the District needs the money. From now on, the District will want to encourage water conservation by hitting the "heavy users". Currently there is no drought. If McGlashan's statements regarding water storage are true, even should there be a drought, our reservoirs would require that the drought last for two years before its impact would be felt. Currently, most of us can feel comfortable that our water usage will not penalize our budgets. But the writing is on the wall. The District has modified its policy; a customer's water use and "Tier" ranking will now determine the cost of the service (rather than a unit price.) Should a heavy drought occur, will the rates rise again, this time putting a squeeze upon those who today are considered to be "normal" water users? In any event, during the next drought, will we have the water we need?

 

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