SOQUEL — The Soquel Creek Water District Board of Directors on Tuesday approved a five-year rate hike for its customers, which district officials say was created to help the district better maintain its aquifer supplies, fund ongoing operations and prevent saltwater intrusion caused by groundwater overdraft.
The increase will also help pay for a $90 million water recycling plant that will use treated water to bolster water supplies in the aquifer, from which Soquel receives 100 percent of its water supply.
SQWD Board of Directors is expected to meet again in March to give final approval to the increase, which will take effect retroactively to March 1.
The new two-tier system is based on meter size and water use.
Tier one covers most single family and multi-family residences with 5/8-inch meters, which make up about 73 percent of the district’s customers. According to the district, these customers will see an increase of no more than $5 per month on their bill during the first year of the increase.
According to information provided by SQWD, multi-family residential homes with larger meters could see a much larger increase this year. Those with a 4-inch meter, for example, will see their bills increase from $490 per month to $1,557, a more than 200 percent increase.
The decision allows the district to increase water rates every year through 2023, but whether they do is based on the district’s ability to secure $50 million in grant money, said Finance and Business Services Manager Leslie Strohm.
If that happens, the rate increases might not be necessary, she said.
“It’s really important for customers to understand that the district is trying to solve a very complex water supply issue, and we’re trying to do it in the most cost-effective way we can,” she said.
In addition to providing water to its customers, SQWD also offers conservation services and “water-wise” conservation house calls, and maintains approximately 173 miles of water mains and 19 production wells, Strohm said.
If the district does implement all five years of the increase, customers on average will see an approximately 41 percent increase, Strohm said.
The rates are necessary, district officials say, to help fund day-to-day operations and to help battle the intrusion of seawater into the aquifers caused by groundwater overdraft. When this occurs, it renders freshwater undrinkable and unusable for irrigation.
That is a pernicious problem in South County, where saltwater intrusion has been measured as far inland as three miles.
“It is right offshore,” said SQWD General Manager Ron Duncan. “It is knocking on our front door step, poised to come in.”
District officials hope that the so-called Pure Water Soquel groundwater replenishment project will help by injecting treated water into the aquifer, thus creating a “barrier” that will keep the salt water at bay.
Board chair Tom LaHue said that, as customers of the district themselves, the board members are just as unhappy with the increases as the rest of the community.
“But we’re all here and committed, because we are committed to making the water supply good for the people who will be here after we are gone,” he said. “We are just trying to do our best.”
Many speakers urged the board to continue receiving water transfers from the City of Santa Cruz, which was rejected as unrealistic.
Santa Cruz City officials have stated that the city does not have the supplies to maintain that program, Duncan said.
In addition, the district cannot receive grants for a water transfer program because it is not considered a capital project that creates assets, Strohm said.
The rate structure was created with the help of an advisory panel made up of 11 residents who balanced financial and conservation concerns.
In an effort to publicize the impending increase, the district sent out mailers and posted the information on its website, Strohm said.
Still, the meeting Tuesday was packed with people who came to protest the hike, along with the Pure Water Soquel plan. In addition, the district received 239 letters of protest.
Aptos resident Monica McGuire said she is concerned about the project, and the possibility that flushed pharmaceutical residue might make its way into drinking water supplies, a possibility that she said has not fully been tested.
“I am not OK with the potential dangers of going forward with a hundreds of million dollar project that we do not need right now,” she said.
Aptos resident Becky Steinbruner opposed the increases, which she said were created solely to fund the Pure Water Soquel project.
Steinbruner said she has filed “legal action” in response to the potential environmental impacts.
“Until that case is heard I do not think you should support improving a rate base that is structured solely to support that project,” she said.
Board member Carla Christensen said the district has little choice but to move forward with the project.
“If we don’t do anything we are facing some severe issues,” she said.
To see a full list of the rate changes, visit bit.ly/2txzoeQ.