Soaking ratepayers?

Locals state their case on Cal Water increases

George Barber, Cal Water district manager for Chico and Oroville, says customers see savings when infrastructure upgrades improve efficiency.

George Barber, Cal Water district manager for Chico and Oroville, says customers see savings when infrastructure upgrades improve efficiency.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

Ronald Husa is like many Butte County residents. “As a retiree on Social Security, I have to watch my pennies,” he said at a public hearing Tuesday night (Feb. 12) about rate increases proposed by Cal Water.

So, when he saw rates in Chico would go up 15.2 percent in 2020—then another 3.6 percent in 2021 and 3.9 percent in 2022—should the California Public Utilities Commission approve the request, “it shook me up. I don’t get 15 percent [more] on Social Security to cover [that increase]; it’s lucky if we get 1 percent.”

Marléne Del Rosario agreed. A former Orovile city councilwoman, whose 2014 campaign included a plank on lowering water rates, she spoke at the Chico hearing even though there’s one tonight (Feb. 14) at 6 p.m. at Oroville City Hall, specific to her district. There, increases are set at 9.9 percent for 2020, then 2.8 percent and 3.1 percent.

Del Rosario told the administrative law judge presiding over the proceedings that this month’s water bill of $76 was her lowest in a year, and her household, which includes her granddaughter, subsequently may have to forgo showers. Later, during discussion of how the CPUC evaluates employee compensation—part of the increase is for payroll—she returned to the lectern and said, “I wish you’d look as carefully at the income of people in Oroville.”

In all, six ratepayers spoke at the hearing, held at the Butte County Association of Governments office off Hegan Lane. Three were Chicoans, three Orovillians; a half-dozen other community members attended. “Ratepayer” replaced “customer” in Judge Charles Ferguson’s parlance after the first speaker, Scott Hubbard of Chico, stated that “customers have choice” but “Cal Water is a monopoly.”

George Barber, Cal Water district manager for Chico and Oroville, said the largest share from rate increases in Chico would go to infrastructure. The district needs to replace 41,000 feet of water mains, around 8 miles. That earmark is $13.8 million. Other notable asks are $600,000 to update the billing system and $400,000 for payroll.

Cal Water also cites infrastructure as the top cause in Oroville and Willows—the latter set for a 33.2 percent jump next year, followed by 7.9 percent and 7.7 percent. That public hearing was scheduled for Wednesday night, after the CN&R’s deadline.

If approved as-is, the proposed change will generate $5.7 million total in Chico, $854,000 in Oroville, $1.3 million in Willows and $115.2 million overall, from all 14 districts included in the request.

Cal Water’s Kevin McCusker, interim manager of general rate case outreach, told the CN&R that the state approves water rates by service area to account for varying conditions. In Willows, for instance, the utility must purify water from chromium-6, or hexavalent chromium, the toxin that gained notoriety in the film Erin Brockovich.

In Chico, Barber said, replacing leaky pipes will make the delivery system more efficient. Hubbard had raised a rhetorical question: If efficiency increases, shouldn’t costs decrease? Barber said afterward that does happen: “When we save money, those savings get passed on to the customer … charges drop off the bill. It is something that changes in real time.”

The companywide increase requested for 2020 is 7.6 percent—below requests for the three local districts—then 4.4 percent each of the following two years. Orovillians spoke about their rate being double Chico’s and even higher than the other districts (Thermalito and South Feather) serving their vicinity.

“It’s not just the amount and what it’s going to [be], it’s what we pay now that we object to,” Del Rosario told the CN&R. “Seventy-six dollars a month out of my income is unreasonable for water when we live on a river of water—and we’re shipping it elsewhere and charging them less.”