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Saturday, February 23 , 2019, 4:23 am | Fair 39º


Goleta Water District Approves Higher Rates, New Drought Surcharge

Dozens of people from the local agricultural community show up to protest the changes, which they say could put them out of business

California Avocado Commission representative Frank Alegria speaks at Tuesday’s public meeting, telling the Goleta Water District Board of Directors that the rate increases and drought surcharge could put local growers out of business.
California Avocado Commission representative Frank Alegria speaks at Tuesday’s public meeting, telling the Goleta Water District Board of Directors that the rate increases and drought surcharge could put local growers out of business. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Goleta Water District board members unanimously approved higher water rates, fixed meter charges and a new drought surcharge after Tuesday night’s public hearing, during which local avocado ranchers told them the proposed rate increases and new drought surcharge would put farms out of business.

The meeting was the final decision for the proposed rate package, which goes into effect July 1 and brings higher per-water-unit rates and new per-unit fees for all water district customers.

For a Stage 3 drought, the current status, the district will charge $2.60 per hundred-cubic-foot of water for all customers, regardless of how much they conserve.

At a previous rate meeting, district officials said that while Goleta customers use a small per-capita amount of water and have reduced usage by more than 20 percent, agricultural customers have increased use by 25 percent.

The water district can impose higher rates and fees unless people from a majority of parcels served by the district protest — in this case, more than 7,000. Before the final vote, the district tallied the protest letters: 79.

Agricultural customers in the urban agricultural class and the Goleta West Conduit (which brings non-potable water directly from Lake Cachuma) have the lowest water rates and that won’t change, but farmers said the increases and addition of a $2.60 per hundred-cubic-feet surcharge will effectively double their bills.

“Many of the groves are just not going to survive,” said Frank Alegria, the local representative for the California Avocado Commission who owns a ranch in Refugio Canyon, outside the district.

Goleta Water District employees tally the protest votes submitted against the proposed rate increases at Tuesday's meeting, where the increases were ultimately approved by the Board of Directors. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Farmers can’t cut back water use by 35 percent without stumping or removing trees, since avocado trees won’t produce fruit with less water, he said. The district’s past proposal to give rebates to farmers who temporarily stump trees won’t work either, since the plan would require the trees to be water-less for more than a year and stumped trees need water after three months, Alegria said.

Many local ranch owners spoke against the higher rates and surcharge, saying the landscape of Goleta Valley agriculture could be forever changed.

Others criticized the district for poor planning, saying the management overstated the water supply and allows too many water meters with new development. Some accused the district of charging rates that were higher than the actual cost of delivering water.

Susan Petrovich, an attorney representing several farmers and residential customers, said the rates are “an insult to all customers, not just agricultural customers who take the biggest hit.” Legal action could follow the board’s approval, but she said no decision has been made.

The Board of Directors had no discussion about the decision before voting, but a few members made comments.

Director Rick Merrifield said the board appreciates the value of agriculture but the public comments had been about money, not water.

“The reason we’re here is because we’re running out of water at any cost, at any price,” he said.

When he said agricultural customers had significantly increased their water usage while the district asked for conservation, farmers yelled out that it was because of the drought.

“By definition, drought increases the need for water,” avocado farmer Catherine Epperson said during public comment.

Noozhawk news editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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