Santa Ana water rates going up… again

City leaders voted this week to raise water rates for the third time in less than two years


Orange County Register, Doug Irving

SANTA ANA Every shower, sprinkle and sip of water is about to cost a little more after city leaders voted this week to raise water rates for the third time in less than two years.

The average homeowner can expect to pay nearly $8 more every month when the new water rates take effect in July. The city’s rates – already higher than those in neighboring cities – have increased about 43 percent since 2007, records show.

In other words, the same homeowner who was paying around $37.50 a month for water two years ago will soon be getting bills for about $53.50 a month.

City officials say there are limits to how much cheap water they can pump from the ground, especially after three years of dry weather. That has forced them to import more water from elsewhere – and pay much more for it.

A 2008 survey by the Municipal Water District found that Santa Ana residents get some of the highest water bills in north and central Orange County. But water agencies in the south part of the county rely much more heavily on imported water and charge more.

The City Council voted 7-0 on Monday evening to pass those higher costs on to residents, saying the city could not afford to absorb those expenses on its own. They also increased sewer fees, tacking another $1 onto the average monthly bill.

But several residents complained that they are in no better position than the city to pay higher costs.

“With this current economic condition and the cut back in my work hours, I find this proposal not only unaffordable, but unconscionable as well,” resident Kevin Parten wrote in a letter to the City Council.

Another writer, 86-year-old Echo McNeilly, summed up her thoughts with two words: “Enough already!”

Santa Ana runs the largest water agency in Orange County, with more than 350,000 customers. It gets most of its water from wells sunk into the ground, although it supplements that every year with water piped in from elsewhere.

This year, though, the Orange County Water District – with an eye toward preserving a dwindling supply of groundwater – limited how much each agency could draw from the wells. That means Santa Ana will have to import more water, even as that water gets more and more expensive, said Thom Coughran, the city’s water resource manager.

The city’s proposed budget shows a big increase – nearly $3 million – in the expected cost to supply water. It also includes smaller increases in the amount spent on operating expenses and administration.

The latest water-rate hike comes as the city struggles to make ends meet. But city officials said the extra money it raises would go only toward water-related expenses – not toward plugging holes in other parts of the budget.

The city’s proposed budget does show millions of dollars in charges and payouts between the water agency and other city departments. But Coughran said those are to cover water expenses handled by those other departments – contracts written by city attorneys, for example, or office work done by Public Works staffers.

In all, the city plans to spend about $26 million just to supply its water in the coming fiscal year. It expects to spend about that much again to maintain its water system and cover its administrative and operating costs.

The rate hike is the third in Santa Ana since September 2007, when the city added about $4.28 to the monthly bill for an average house. Nine months later, in June 2008, the city raised the rates again by an average of about $4 a month.

Contact the writer: 714-704-3777 or dirving@ocregister.com

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