Lingering woes persist for Californians long after drought ended

By Andrew Lara

Many Californians became uneasy in 2016 after Governor Jerry Brown imposed a 25 percent water conservation mandate on every household in the Golden State because it was quickly followed by unwelcome water and sewer rate increases.


We were told that, even though we were using a quarter less water in our homes, water suppliers and sewage providers would face insolvency if they couldn’t charge us more for less water because their cost structures were already locked in and couldn’t be cut.


Soon, rates shot up around California by double digits. In some areas, they jumped 30 percent or more than prior to the water conservation mandate. Howls of pain were felt in communities with many renters, those populated with the working poor, and those with high numbers of retirees, fixed-income, disadvantaged and minority residents.


In these communities, the loss of a few tens and twenties every month to pay water and sewer bills meant making some hard choices about where to cut back expenses elsewhere, for shelter, food, medicines and their other necessities.


Then, the drought ended as suddenly as it had begun. Conservation mandates were eventually lifted, but — surprise — our utility bills stayed high. Even though the utilities were again handling more water, they didn’t cut charges back to where they had been before the rate hikes.


In fact, some Californians face even more rate hikes because the water and sewer agencies sought and received permission to increase rates in stages over several years. For many Californians, the drought’s pain will persist long after the rains returned in 2017, and some say they will never go down again.


This is fundamentally unfair. California is blessed with lots of water but is cursed by where it is available. About 75 percent of the rain and snow the state receives in any given year falls in the sparsely populated northern end of California or other states, while two-thirds of its people live in the south.


People who live in the Los Angeles basin or San Diego may drink water that fell to earth as snows on California’s Cascades or Sierras, on the Tehachapis, or as melt water from mountains as far away as Wyoming and Colorado that flowed down the Colorado River.


Massive water capture and aqueduct transport facilities move water from where it originates to where it is needed. Most were designed before 1970. Some are falling apart, as we saw when Oroville Dam’s primary spillway failed catastrophically in 2017.


Everyone needs to know that our state lags far behind the curve in delivering enough water to serve all its population. Many migrated here since 1978, the year the last major dam was built.


That’s why voters regularly see water bonds on their ballots, including Proposition 1 in 2014, Proposition 68 this June and now Proposition 3 in our November general election. Many others water bond measures have passed or failed since 2000, but the work they fund is far from done.


Rather than continue to hike water rates and raise sewer bills to pay for water, sewage and storm-water runoff infrastructure projects, California needs bond measures to spread the costs of its water projects across everyone who benefits from them and allow huge sums to be paid for over time.


The alternative to these bond measures is water so expensive that no one can afford to drink it, let alone bathe in it, wash our clothes or water our yards.


Water may not be the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about how important it is to vote in November, but it should definitely not be your last thought, either.

Andrew Lara is a Director for the Pico Water District.