LANCASTER – A group of about 500 Lancaster residents were shocked to receive notices that their water purveyor, California Water Service Company, has filed a notice with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) requesting a 59.7% water rate increase for 2014. (Read the notice customers received here.) Residents in these neighborhoods, just off the 14 freeway in west Lancaster, are infuriated.
Cal Water is the largest for-profit water utility in California, serving areas throughout the state. In the Antelope Valley, they serve approximately 1,500 homes with service also in Leona Valley and Lake Hughes. Although rates can vary widely across California, Antelope Valley customers already pay some of the highest.
“I’m flustered. What can I do to reduce more, other than let everything die?” said Bill Shumard a retiree residing on 21st Street West.
Located within a half-mile of his Lancaster neighborhood are three other water districts. Yet Shumard and other Cal Water customers pay two to three times as much as those in surrounding not-for-profit water districts. Their average bills top $140 per month and may reach $225 per month by 2016. Some area residents report current bills of $600 and beyond in the dry summer months. They worry what those bills will look like after the rate hikes.
Shumard has kept fastidious records of his water use, by month, since 1990. “July of 1990, I used around 70 CCF. Last July was 39 and I am hoping for 30 or less with this project,” he said.
Shumard is replacing the last of his front lawn with gravel and few desert-friendly plants.
One CCF of water is 748 gallons; the average Lancaster Cal Water customer uses 29 CCFs. Just across the street, LA County Waterworks customers pay about $56 for that same amount of water.
It’s not just residents that are feeling the pinch.
Our Shepherd Evangelical Lutheran Church replaced much of its grass with low water use landscaping. “We had Cal Water come out and do a water usage evaluation. They said it was one of the most efficient conservations systems they had seen. Yet, our bills are still off the charts. We are a non-profit and they are killing us. We have to budget $5,000 a year for water; our total operating budget is only $75,000,” said Jay Anders, the church’s facility coordinator.
Sheila Phillips, a resident of West Avenue K10, has been in her house since it was built, nearly 25 years ago. She said she has watched her bills dramatically increase, “It used to be $22 every two months, now it’s well over $100 a month and we haven’t even got into the hot part of the summer,” Phillips said.
She has considered putting in more efficient sprinklers, but says even those are expensive. “If you don’t take care of your lawn the city code enforcement gets you. You are darned if you do, darned if you don’t.”
Cal Water customers say they feel helpless. Even water conservation projects can’t get them out from under Cal Water’s thumb, customers say, because the CPUC now allows Cal Water to charge local customers for water they haven’t used.
Beginning in March 2013, customers received a surcharge on their bill so the company could recoup revenues lost when customers conserved water in 2012. Between meter charges and surcharges, most customer bills are nearly $100 before they even turn on the tap.
“It continually goes up. We don’t have any options,” adds Phillips’ neighbor, David Sprague.
Phillips and other neighbors are doing what they can. They have been walking the neighborhood with petitions and flyers, urging their neighbors to attend a public hearing with the CPUC at 6 p.m. on Thursday at Lancaster City Hall. (View the flyer here.)
”The CPUC needs to hear from Cal Water customers about the hardships their rate increases are causing. Retirees, working families and small businesses cannot afford these water bills, especially in a tight economy,” said Kirsten W. Larson, a Cal Water customer with two small children. “According to the EPA, we shouldn’t pay more than 2.5% of median household income for water. These rate increases will mean local residents would pay 3.6% of their paycheck for something they can’t live without.”
Back when Bill Shumard first bought his house on one acre he was excited to plant fruit trees. “Being retired, they gave me an excuse to play in the backyard,” he said. Shumard’s fruit trees are now gone, along with most of his grass and his neighbors’ grass too. Yet his water bill continues to go up, he said.
“I went with drip systems in an effort to conserve. The more efficient we become the more they charge us. It leaves me a little flummoxed how that reasoning exists,” Shumard said.
Cal Water customers in the Antelope Valley who are against the proposed rate hikes have launched a grassroots effort called AV Residents for Reasonable Water Rates. They’re encouraging all affected residents to attend a Public Participation Hearing, which starts at 6 p.m., Thursday, May 23 at Lancaster City Hall Council Chambers, located at 44933 North Fern Avenue in Lancaster.
To learn more about AV Residents for Reasonable Water Rates or to join the effort, visit the group’s facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/AvResidentsForReasonableWaterRates.