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Santa Barbara Council Approves Water Rate Increases to Take Effect in July

The Santa Barbara City Council on Tuesday approved the highest-possible water rate increases for the coming fiscal year, ensuring for residents that hikes could come down depending on the actual costs associated with restarting the city’s long-dormant desalination facility.

Although it rained Tuesday, not enough fell this winter to improve the drought situation, which is why the council unanimously approved rate increases to take effect July 1, the beginning of the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Officials will decide whether to restart the desalination plant later this month, and a contract for the work could be awarded in June.

The facility would be fully operational by fall 2016.

City staff said they were unable to find a way to shield local avocado farmers from rate increases, following a request from City Council members at a previous public hearing on the topic.

Agricultural water users had been buying a reserved portion of the city’s cheapest water, paying about 50 percent less than the lowest-water-using single-residential family.

Planned hikes push ag rates up more than 50 percent from current levels because Santa Barbara is running out of its cheapest water, according to water resources manager Joshua Haggmark.

He noted that residents saved 5 percent less water in February than in previous months (where they at least met 20 percent conservation requirements).

While city staff continues identifying water to purchase from outside the area — the city will exhaust its entitlement from Lake Cachuma by the end of 2015 — they’re asking water customers to pick up the capital costs of reactivating the desalination plant.

The facility could initially pump 3,125 acre-feet of water per year. By 2017, the facility would increase capacity to 7,500 acre-feet, upping operating costs to $5.3 million a year.

Drought rates were designed to generate the $40 million needed to cover the cost of reactivating the plant, but only higher water users in Tiers 2 and 3 would be responsible for funding operating costs.

A single-family residential 5/8-inch meter would pay $9.18 more in monthly meter charges if 100 percent of the desalination debt service is recovered through fixed revenue.

Low to moderate water users could expect increases of $9 to $30, and the average user would see about a $20-a-month boost if the city activates the plant.

Rates, which were based on water-use predictions, will be reassessed before the plant is reactivated and again next spring.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff 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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