A man walks into the Long Beach Groundwater Treatment Plant for a water rate increase hearing on August 26, 2021. Photo by Jason Ruiz

After a brief hearing Thursday night inside the Long Beach Groundwater Treatment Plant, the city’s water commissioners approved rate hikes for water customers in Long Beach that are expected to bring small increases to monthly bills.

Water department officials say the rate increases, 8% for water service and 10% for sewer, will help stabilize the department’s reserves and pay for new wells and investments in the city’s aging network of pipes.

The increases are anticipated to increase a typical residential water bill by about $5.39, according to the department.

Long Beach Water Department General Manager Chris Garner said earlier this year that the move will cost residents money but could save them money in the long run as the city works to gain more independence from imported water that could face more price volatility as drought conditions persist.

While the water department received over 760 protests to the rate hikes, just four people spoke at Thursday night’s hearing, with some expressing concern that the hikes are ill-timed because of the pandemic.

The protest needed a majority of the city’s 90,000 water accounts to block the rate increases from going forward.

Water Commission Board President Frank Martinez sympathized with the speakers but supported the motion to send the rate increases on to the City Council.

“I know it’s been a difficult year for all of us, and I’m very empathetic of the plight that people are going through, but the costs are the costs,” Martinez said.

The department was projecting a $6 million combined deficit between its water and sewer funds and said it needed to raise rates to cover those expenses and make critical investments in the city’s water network.

Long Beach currently imports about 40% of its water with 50% coming from groundwater and the remainder being recycled water that the city uses for parks and golf courses.

The department hopes to become more dependent on local groundwater by increasing production to 65% while reducing imported water to just 15%, according to a department document.

Anatol Falagan, assistant general manager of the water department, said it would help break the city’s dependence on more expensive imported water.

The water commission voted 4-0 in late June to approve the rate increases and Thursday’s hearing was required by Proposition 218, a California law that limits agencies from charging more than the cost of providing services like water.

Earlier this week the City Council took the first of two votes to approve the city’s fiscal budget Tuesday, and is expected to adopt the new rates at its Sept. 7 meeting when it formally adopts the budget.

Mike Murchison, a lobbyist for rental property owners, said he was personally opposed to the rate increases but added that his clients, who own thousands of rental properties across the country, should be given credit for the actual number of accounts they pay for.

“The number adds up to the majority of properties in Long Beach,” Murchison said.

Garner clarified that even if a landlord pays for the water and sewer services for an entire 40-unit building, state laws require the department to treat it as one account.

The higher rates in Long Beach were proposed before the federal government declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time in history. The shortage could affect Long Beach and the 25 other member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which imports water from the Colorado as well as the Sacramento area.

The District issued a “water supply alert” the day after the federal government’s announcement of the shortage, which calls on its members to reduce water usage through public awareness campaigns to decrease outdoor watering, prohibit the washing of cars at home and requiring restaurants to only serve water on request.

If the shortage worsens the District could move to a “water supply allocation” which would implement higher rates to member agencies for increased water usage.

Metropolitan General Manager Adel Hagekhalil said it was “time together as a state to address the crisis” in a statement announcing the water supply alert earlier this month.

“The reality is that climate change will accelerate these challenges, which will require us to think differently and innovate ways to adapt—we must build on our process in conservation and double down on our investment in local water supplies, including recycled water and stormwater,” Hagekhalil said.

The new Long Beach water and sewer rates go into effect Oct. 1.

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

Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or @JasonRuiz_LB on Twitter.