OCWD Rate Increase: ‘Sucking it Up’ Will Lower Ratepayer Costs and Fill the Basin

By Debbie Cook
Special to the Surf City Voice

Note: This article was edited (04/19/2018) to correct a quote  (see “cut the fat”) and to add information about the effects of water rates and pumping on the basin.

I recently spoke at the Orange County Water District (OCWD) Water Issues Committee (WIC) in support of OCWD staff’s first proposal to raise the District’s replenishment assessment (RA) by $27.

OCWD board members go over budget items at a recent committee/board meeting. Photo by John Earl

Based on OCWD staff’s basin pumping projections (OCWD manages the Orange County Groundwater Basin), I calculate that the price increase is equal to 6¢ for 748 gallons (one unit) of water.

My husband and I used 8 units in February. Seventy-five percent of our water comes from the basin and 25% from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. We have a 1/3 acre lot landscaped with drought-tolerant plants as well as fruit trees and a vegetable garden.

So, OCWD staff’s originally proposed increase would add about 36¢ per month to our water bill.

But Santa Ana City Councilman Vincent Sarmiento, who represents his city on the OCWD Board of Directors, apparently took offense. To him, I was telling his constituents to “suck it up” and he suggested that the OCWD  “cut the fat” like he has to do in his city.

OCWD Director Vincent Sarmiento. Photo: John Earl

Sarmiento pointed out that he represents constituents who barely afford food or rent. “So, you know, I’m just shocked by some of the comments I’ve heard throughout the county from some folks. And I’m offended by some of the comments I hear even in our agency,” he said.

I’m all for cutting fat, but after years attending OCWD meetings (and videotaping them) I have seen no evidence that its board can cut the fat of its own making.

Consider the 5% raise the board discreetly gave itself recently, bringing the meeting stipend to $275 per director. That raise could have covered a 36¢ water-rate increase for 8000 homeowners.

Half of the board’s $26,000 travel budget could relieve 36,000 low-income homeowners.

And those unnecessary OCWD memberships, like BIA, ACCOC, CalDesal, Chamber of Commerce, and Utility Branding Network cost over $20,000, funds that could relieve 56,000 struggling residents.

How about we throw in the OC Gift of History at $15,000? That’s another 42,000 residents subsidized.

When Director Jan Flory was on the OCWD board, she suggested combining some of OCWD’s board meetings to save time and money. That went over like the proverbial “candy bar” in the punch bowl.

But one of my favorite items on the OCWD pork menu was the recent multi-million dollar renovation to update hallway displays. Education is important, but the OCWD’s 2.4 million residents would be better educated (and more engaged with OCWD) if it provided them with live streaming of its meetings for about $12,000.

More important, are Councilman Sarmiento’s low-income constituents better served by deferring a rate increase or by, in his words, “sucking it up”?

The answer is, OCWD staff warned that approval of a compromise option (that Sarmiento favors)—a $17 RA increase and a bump up in basin pumping—will result in higher costs in later years. In fact, by 2022, the RA needs to rise to $614 from today’s $445, according to staff projections, to pay for OCWD’s past commitments.

Note also that a lower RA plus an increased BPP (from 75% to 77%) means more delays in correcting the severe basin overdraft that resulted from previous mismanagement by the board.

Under staff’s first proposal (with a 75% BPP) the overdraft would be reduced by 38,000 A/F compared to 6,000 A/F up to 30,000 A/F for a $17 RA increase.

All the while, OCWD continues to cover the costs (nearly $800,000, so far) of investigating a billion-dollar ocean desalination project that would raise the RA by hundreds of dollars. I don’t see how that helps anyone’s constituents, but it is an election year so I might be missing something.

Related stories: OCWD Pressured to Hold Back Rate Increase Tonight

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