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Lynne Plambeck:The costs of growth and water rates

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: August 5, 2009 8:45 p.m.
Updated: August 6, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Soon ratepayers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley will experience a rise in water rates. This is due mainly to an increase in water rates from Castaic Lake Water Agency, the agency that imports state water from Northern California.

The agency says we all must absorb the increases of “operating expenses” that led to the increase in the cost of water.

But one has to wonder why operating expenses would suddenly jump 100 percent between 2007 and 2010, requiring a doubling of the wholesale water rate.

Yes, some of these increases are really due to increases in the cost of energy and needed repairs. It is estimated that as much as 20 percent of energy in California is used to move water around from north to south using the huge pumps at the Edmundson pumping station below the Grapevine.

Moving water over the Tehachapi Mountains uses an enormous amount of electricity. And pumping water up from deeper and deeper in the ground also guzzles energy. Pumps and pipelines need maintenance and must be replaced when they wear out. These costs are passed on to your local water agency through the increase in cost of state water charged to them.

But much of the increase in the cost of imported water charged to local agencies is just plain due to the cost of new development.

Adding thousands of houses means that treatment plants must be expanded, new pipelines and pumps must be added and new water must be acquired.

Connection fees pay for some of these capital investments for the new growth, but much seems to be rolled into local water rates or paid for by the property taxes of existing residents. With almost all locally elected officials receiving most of their campaign funds from developers, you can bet that it is a case of the fox guarding the hen house in Santa Clarita.

For instance, the cost of the Rio Vista Treatment Plant expansion to accommodate all the new growth will run a tidy $37 million — that’s if there are no cost overruns, a common occurrence at CLWA. The expansion of the Earl Schmidt Plant in the 1990s accumulated overruns of some $19 million before it was completed.  

Just the access road to the Sand Canyon reservoir to move state water to the east side of the valley to support new development will cost more than $1 million, with change orders already increasing that amount by another $36,000. That’s not to mention the millions spent on the reservoir itself.

A portion of these improvement costs is allocated to existing residents on the theory that they improve water delivery.

As more expensive water is purchased from Northern California to accommodate new growth, that cost is spread among existing ratepayers, raising local water bills for everyone.

For instance, the purchase of water for Santa Clarita from the Kern River ran in the tens of millions. Storage of water in Kern County to ensure that all these new residents have an adequate supply in a drought costs tens of millions and more when it is withdrawn and shipped south. The cost of the new water that will be purchased by Newhall Land for Newhall Ranch and eventually absorbed into the water rates for Valencia Water Co. customers will cost more than twice last year’s current water rate.

As water emergencies continue throughout the state and local conservation is urged for Santa Claritans, a new sod farm to grow grass for lawns sprays water generously at midday on future Newhall Ranch property. Could this be to enable Newhall to count this water use towards pumping for future housing on Newhall Ranch? Why isn’t this less expensive local source used to supply residents?

For many years, SCOPE has advocated that the costs of new growth should be placed on that growth, not on existing residents.

As a planning tool, such a policy would encourage efficiency of public infrastructure expansions and discourage urban sprawl.

Due to the passage of proposition 218 in the early ’90s, at least some ratepayers will have the opportunity to attend public hearings and make that happen by protesting these increases.

Our community also has the option to participate in local democracy and run for office (the filing period for school boards and water districts closes this Friday) or vote in local elections.

So when you hear the common mantra that “growth is good,” you might want to think about replying that “sustainability is better.” It is also less expensive.

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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