The Water Wars 

EBMUD wants Berkeley and Oakland residents to subsidize Contra Costa County water guzzlers during the drought. But will it work?

Top officials at the East Bay Municipal Utility District say their drought plan must slash total water usage by 15 percent to avoid a true emergency. But so far, the district has fallen far short of that goal. As of last week, district customers had cut water use by only 4.5 percent since the agency announced in May that its supplies had dropped to dangerously low levels. And it may not get much better, particularly when homeowners find out that the district's plan penalizes water conservationists and favors water guzzlers.

Under EBMUD's mandatory water rationing proposal, which goes to the agency's board of directors for a vote on July 8, East Bay homeowners must cut their water usage by 10 percent or they will have to pay a premium. However, unlike during the last drought, homeowners will be judged based on their past water consumption. As a result, it could be tough for those who already take short showers, have bought water-saving appliances, and planted drought-resistant gardens. By contrast, the agency's plan should be easy for the East Bay's biggest water users, who can still keep their lawns green, their sidewalks clean, and their swimming pools full without fear of paying a penalty.

For example, homeowners who currently use 750 gallons of water a day, which ranks them among the East Bay's heaviest water users, only have to cut down to 675 gallons daily to avoid a drought surcharge under the agency's plan. By contrast, homeowners who already practice conservation and use just 170 gallons a day, which ranks among the lightest water users, must somehow find a way to drop to 153 gallons or they will pay a penalty.

Andy Katz, an EBMUD board member who represents Albany, Berkeley, El Cerrito, Emeryville, Kensington, and North Oakland — areas that traditionally don't use much water — believes the plan is unfair. "We have a lot of waste in this district and people who waste the most should pay the highest price," he said.

In summertime, 20 percent of the single-family homes in EBMUD's district use at least 750 gallons of water a day, according to Gary Breaux, the agency's director of finance. "A lot of those are on the east of the hills side," explained Breaux, referring to west, mid, and south Contra Costa County. "It's hotter out there, and you have larger lots."

The agency's district runs from Pinole south through Berkeley and Oakland to Castro Valley, and east to Walnut Creek, Danville, and Blackhawk. Single-family homes represent 45 percent of the agency's customers. Condos and apartments make up 18 percent, and the rest are businesses and other public agencies.

Despite his complaints about the plan, which primarily affects homeowners and which is to take effect August 1, Katz appears ready to vote for it. He said it's too late to change it and have it in place for the summer. The reason has to do with a state law that requires public agencies to inform the public well in advance of plans to increase rates or fees. If EBMUD were to revise its drought fee proposal now, it would not be able to implement the new plan until September.

Katz also noted that under the plan, homeowners can request an adjustment to their water allotment if they can show that they're already conserving as best as they can. In addition, the plan does not affect homeowners who use fewer than 100 gallons a day. However, according to Breaux, only 18 percent of the single family homes in the district fall into that category during the summer.

So why is EBMUD pushing a plan that goes easy on water wasters but tough on people already conserving? After all, during the last drought, in 1990 and 1991, the agency didn't use past consumption as a criterion for penalties. Instead, it simply slapped guzzlers with stiff surcharges for using too much water. The more water that flowed out of their faucets and hoses, the tougher the penalties. The plan worked, too. According to news reports, water usage plummeted 30 percent when it was in effect.

But EBMUD board member John Coleman, who represents Alamo, Blackhawk, Danville, Diablo, Lafayette, and portions of Pleasant Hill, San Ramon, and Walnut Creek, said the old drought plan caused unforeseen problems. Many residents were so angry about the stiff penalties that they simply refused to pay their bills, putting financial pressure on a public utility that desperately needs funds, especially at a time when it is selling less water. "Basically, they fund the district," Coleman said of the heavy water users. "If they don't pay their bills, it can cause a financial hardship for the district."

At the moment, EBMUD has limited options for going after water-bill scofflaws. For example, it doesn't have the legal right to place financial liens on delinquent property owners, although Assemblywoman Loni Hancock is sponsoring a bill that would change that. However, the agency does have some powerful weapons in its arsenal. For example, it could install water-flow restrictors on the homes that waste the most water, or it could shut off the water completely when homeowners refuse to pay their bills.

However, under the district's current leadership, the agency is reluctant to go after its biggest and wealthiest customers. Katz said a proposal to levy stiff fines for heavy water use backed with threats of water shut-offs likely would not get enough votes, especially from board members who represent suburban and upscale residents. Coleman, for example, has been on the board for eighteen years and he voted against the old plan back in 1991.


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