Public hearing scheduled for August as water commissioners propose raising water, sewer rates

Long Beach Water Department customers could see an increase in their monthly bills if a proposed rate hike for water and sewer service is approved later this year by the City Council.

The department said that the proposed 8% increase for water service and 10% increase for sewer rates will result in a roughly $5.39 change in monthly bills for the average customer. The increases are necessary to stabilize reserve funds and invest in aging pipes and the creation of new wells, according to department officials.

Long Beach Water commissioners voted 4-0 in late June to approve the rate increases, but before the City Council can approve the rate increase as part of the city’s budget process this fall, the public will have a chance to voice their opinions at a public hearing on Aug. 26.

The hearing is required by Proposition 218, a law passed by California voters in 1996 that limits the cost that residents can be charged for things like water to the actual cost of providing them and also sets a higher threshold for special taxes to pass, requiring two-thirds of voters to approve them. A lawsuit against the city alleging it had been overcharging water customers for years and transferring excess revenue into the general fund is expected to be decided by the California Supreme Court in the coming months.

Before eventually voting for the rate increases, board president Frank Martinez said that the commissioners should consider a lower rate increase, especially on the tail end of pandemic. If the rates are approved by the council they’d become effective Oct. 1.

“It still shows that we’re being compassionate to the rate payers,” Martinez said during the June 24 meeting. “A double digit just doesn’t feel right to me.”

Water could become a more expensive commodity as drought continues to grip the western half of the United States and water reservoirs drop to historic lows. The Colorado River, which supplies 40 million people in the Southwest with water, is on the verge of having the federal government declare a water shortage for the first time. Last week Gov. Gavin Newsom asked Californians to voluntarily reduce water usage by 15% as nearly all of the state is in an extreme drought, according to U.S. Drought Monitor.

Long Beach imports about 40% of its water supply with the two main sources being the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta and the Colorado River. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, one of the world’s largest water agencies, which Long Beach is a part of, sells the water to member cities like Long Beach.

Part of the reason department officials are calling for increases is to pay for infrastructure like repairing aging pipelines and meters, but also to rehabilitate existing groundwater wells and drilling new ones.

“It costs money but it will save our customers money in the long run,” Water Department General Manger Chris Garner said Thursday.

Garner said it’s safe to say that water related services could continue to get more expensive across the board as resources are strained. While Long Beach has not asked customers to reduce their usage, it may have to if the water situation in the region doesn’t improve over the next few months, he said.

Long Beach gets about 60% of its water from groundwater sources helping it to maintain relatively low costs to customers, and increasing its ability to tap into underground sources could give it more independence from any federal or state mandated water restrictions.

“What we need to do for our efforts to justify these raises is to connect what we’re doing with these raises is that by applying these to capital investments, improving our groundwater abilities we’re gaining independence,” said Commissioner Bob Shannon. “And by gaining independence we’re avoiding the effects of the drought.”

The 8% increase this year, if approved, will likely be the first in a series of rate increases over the next few years needed to bring the department’s operating reserves back up to the department’s minimum reserve level of about $30 million.

A presentation given to the board before its vote showed the projected rate increases over the next four years. Under 8% increase scenario for water service, the department projects it would have to increase rates in the 2023 (6%), 2024 (4%) and 2025 (4%) fiscal years as well.

The sewer rates could also be raised by 8% in 2023 and 2024 with an additional 4% increase in 2025, according to the presentation, which showed that smaller increases this year could have meant larger increases in the following years.

Between the water and sewer fund the department has projected around a $11.6 million structural deficit.

While the meeting is currently planned to be held in person, the timing of it could be affected if COVID-19 numbers continue to rise. Los Angeles County health officials announced Thursday the county would reinstitute an indoor mask mandate this week and if things continue to go backward to the point where an online-only hearing is the only option it could require the department to send out a new notice to customers, which could restart the clock, Garner said.

The hearing is scheduled for Aug. 26 at 7 p.m at the Long Beach Groundwater Treatment Plant located at 2950 Redondo Ave.

Editors note: This story has been updated with comments from Long Beach Water Department General Manager Chris Garner. 

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.