Residents of Dillon Beach who have paid increasingly unaffordable prices for water are getting some relief, after the California Public Utilities Commission and the California Water Service Company—a private company that serves half a million customers in the state—agreed to a settlement that will cut the community’s average water bill by about $17 a month. The company’s other districts will see rates go up.
Privately run utility companies must get approval from the utility commission every three years to increase rates; last year, at a public hearing held in Tomales, residents cried that they were charged so much for water that they had cut back on showering and flushing toilets. According to the water company, the high rates are a result of the district’s small size and fixed operating costs. The company had asked for a 33 percent rate increase in the area, which it said was needed to offset losses from water conservation as well as infrastructure improvements.
Although the utility commission technically agreed to a 24 percent increase in Dillon Beach’s rates, that increase will be offset by an ex- panded Rate Support Fund, a pool of money supplied by small surcharges on all the state’s customers that lowers bills in high-cost districts. For the average Dillon Beach customer who uses about 50 gallons of water a day, new monthly bills will be about $98.77, compared to the current average of 116.43, according to a Cal Water flier to be mailed to customers in September. The subsidy, however, only applies to the first 400 cubic feet of water—about 100 gallons a day—used per month. Low-income customers will get an even greater offset, with a benefit increased by $12 to $30 a month; they’ll end up paying an average of $66.60.
The C.P.U.C.’s decision, issued on Aug. 14, is also retroactive to the beginning of 2014, meaning that customers will get a credit for the months they continued to pay the old rates. Though the utility com- mission found a way to respond to Dil- lon Beach’s water plight, the precious resource has by no means become cheap, said Jeff Young, a resident involved in the rate case. “A lot of people changed their lifestyle completely because the water was so expensive. And it’s still really expensive,” Mr. Young said. While he lauded the fact that rates will go down, particularly for those who qualify as low income, he added that Dillon Beach needed to remain vigilant; in 2015, Cal Water will begin a new round of public hearings to determine what rates should be starting in 2017. There are no guarantees that the support fund will provide the same amount of financial assistance to Dillon Beach, and the settlement explicitly states that the new agreement does not set a precedent for offsets.
“The next rate case could come up with less, more, different, sideways, who knows? The concept of affordability, I think, is here to stay, but how to calculate affordability—it may change,” Mr. Young said. “Next year, when they start the rate case, [people need to] get involved...They can’t lose their vim and vigor in terms of finding ways to make water affordable.”