In water-challenged South County, the concept of the Nipomo Supplemental Water Project has been around for decades. Day by day, though, the project is becoming more real.
While the actual construction of a supplemental water pipeline between Santa Maria and Nipomo has been underway for more than a year now, Nipomo residents and stakeholders are still deciding how to pay for the project.
In particular, a yearlong study evaluating proposed water rate increases for customers of the Nipomo Community Services District (NCSD) and a final decision about whether or not to accept those increases will both culminate in a Nov. 21 NCSD Board of Directors meeting.
“With something as important as this, it’s never going to be an easy meeting,” NCSD General Manager Michael LeBrun told New Times. “That said, I think the necessity of the increase is well understood and has been well explained.”
Some Nipomo residents, however, beg to differ. A small group of locals has been posting signs, writing letters, and going door to door in their community to raise awareness and spark protest about what they consider to be an ill-conceived plan.
“For the NCSD to take the position that their ratepayers should bear the burden of all these rate increases just isn’t fair,” said Carla, a Nipomo resident and group leader who asked to be identified only by her first name. “We’re not the big water consumers in the area.”
Carla pointed to the golf course communities (Monarch Dunes, Blacklake, and Cypress Ridge), Phillips 66’s Santa Maria Refinery, and rural/agricultural water users on private wells as substantial users of groundwater outside of the NCSD’s purview—and thus not affected by the proposed rate increase.
“They’re going to be big users regardless of what supplemental water we pay for,” Carla said.
Both LeBrun and Carla said they expect high attendance and a rousing debate on Nov. 21—a rare occurrence for the NCSD board meetings, which usually draw only a handful of attendees.
After the NCSD board unanimously approved a final version of the water rate study on Sept. 24, public hearing notices went out to all NCSD ratepayers, giving them 45 days to protest the increase. According to LeBrun, if the NCSD receives 50 percent plus one “protest” votes from ratepayers by Nov. 21—which would total roughly 2,100 protests—the board is forbidden from authorizing the increase. As of Nov. 13, LeBrun said his office received about 300 protests.
“Rate increases don’t often fail that way, and I don’t think ours will either,” LeBrun said. “If we don’t set ourselves up to buy supplemental water—which is what this rate increase does—then we’ll have a dry, expensive, useless pipeline, and that doesn’t make any sense.”
LeBrun said he’s confident that his board members are well informed and hopes that they will approve the rate increase on Nov. 21.
As detailed in the public hearing notice, the planned increase, if approved, will manifest as one “fixed charge” and one “volume charge” on customers’ water bills.
The fixed charge is based on water meter size, will range from $13.20 to $396 bi-monthly, and is, according to the notice, “intended to recover NCSD customers’ share for building the facilities required to bring the water to Nipomo.”
The volume charge is flexible based on the amount of water used, is variable year-to-year, and “recovers the cost of the district’s share of supplemental water purchased from the city of Santa Maria and NCSD’s operation and maintenance costs to deliver the supplemental water.”
Ultimately, what all these calculations mean for “average” NCSD residential customers using 36 units per month is a 34.4 percent increase from Nov. 1, 2014, rates to July 1, 2015, rates, when the increase would first kick in and supplemental water is slated to begin flowing through the pipeline.
Projecting down the road, overall water rates for the same “average customer” as of July 1, 2017, are scheduled to be 52.1 percent higher than their Nov. 1, 2014, level.
“It is a significant rate increase and a big percentage jump, so I understand the concern, but all this does is set our rates at a similar level as those of neighboring communities,” LeBrun said. “Water rates are going up everywhere, and we’re not immune. We have to pay for our supplemental water.”
As far as Carla and her cadre are concerned, the NCSD is asking for too much.
“I understand that we do have to fund the pipeline somehow, but raising rates this much is going to devastate people on fixed and lower incomes,” Carla said. “I don’t know of any other local water provider who’s increasing rates this much.”
Carla said that her “NCSD Rate Protest” group is encouraging as many people as possible to send in protest ballots and attend the Nov. 21 meeting. She added that, in her opinion, raising awareness of the rate increase is just as important as protesting it.
“A lot of folks didn’t pay attention to the hearing notice because it was in legalese and came during peak election mailer season,” Carla said. “It also wasn’t sent out in Spanish, so there’s a whole segment of the community in the dark.”
Ultimately—barring an unlikely late torrent of protest ballots—the NCSD Board of Directors will be the final arbiter of the water rate increase question when they meet on Nov. 21 at 2 p.m., at the Jon S. Seitz Board Room, 148 South Wilson St., Nipomo.
Contact Staff Writer Rhys Heyden at firstname.lastname@example.org.