Drought leads to increased water costs

Santa Clara citizens may have to pay higher water rates due to lower usage revenue

After originally suggesting a 31 percent hike in water rates, the Santa Clara Valley Water District has proposed a more modest increase of 19 percent instead. The deliberation arises from the district’s desire to find more effective water conservation methods in the midst of California’s current drought. The district’s final decision will be made in May.

The district is encouraging citizens to reduce their use of water in efforts to conserve during the drought. However, cutting the public use of water by 20 percent without increasing water rates would cause the district to lose $20 million, which prompted the initially proposed rate hike. Some members of the board still disagree with the proposal to reduce the rate hike, and are pushing for as large of a rate hike as possible.

On the other hand, residents of the Santa Clara county have supported the rate hike reduction but hope to see the rates decrease even further.

“Where do you cut, where do you sacrifice?” San Jose resident Ruth Callahan said in an interview with San Jose Mercury News. “I’m the face of the rate payer, OK? I’ve been rate-increased to the max.”

Most residents argue that the burden of cost should not be placed on the citizens. Instead, they believe that the district board ought to find other ways to manage the limited budget without passing the financial burden onto citizens.

However, it has been difficult for the board to find alternatives considering the huge financial toll taken on the district’s budget by the drought. In the past three years of drought, $22 million has been spent on buying water from sellers outside the county, $5 million on rebates to pay residents to remove lawns and replace old toilets and appliances and $7 million to collect water from Kern County’s groundwater bank.

The drought has not been detrimental to only district finances — local farmers have been affected as well. The lack of rain has resulted in difficulty feeding livestock and raising crops for area farmers and ranchers.

“The drought has been horrible on us,” Old Creek Ranch owner Bob Blanchard said in an interview with Peninsula Press. “Running a farm on a third of the normal rainfall hasn’t been easy.”

Due to the drought, Blanchard has been forced to reduce his herd to half its initial size. The drought has also caused more reliance on outside resources for hay and alfalfa. However, demand for hay has been record-high in China, causing local American farmers to constantly be priced out. The competition for hay and alfalfa has caused prices to rise $300-$400 per ton this past year.

The increase in costs for obtaining resources for farmers has also caused market prices in California to rise.

“Prices for meat and dairy have been affected the most at the market,” Blanchard said. “Prices [are] well above normal market standards, [but] even with these kinds of price increases, costs to farmers aren’t being covered.”

Any action taken to conserve water will result in short-term loss to one party or another. It is now just a question of who takes the hit — the district board or the residents.
“I don’t feel comfortable with the recommendations we’re seeing right now,” board director Barbara Keegan said in an interview with San Jose Mercury News. “Let’s exercise some muscles here and not have our knee jerk reaction be ‘we need to raise rates.’ If there are other options, we need to consider those.”