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Water, Water Everywhere

Columnist: Bob Andrews
October, 2012 Issue
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Bob Andrews
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I was “dismayed” by my city of Santa Rosa water and sewer bill this past June. It was $189.33 and reported water consumption of 23,000 gallons. I knew there’d been a landscape irrigation problem in May/June. My usual monthly bill is about $60 for 2,000 gallons, or less than $50 for 1,000 gallons. But the complexity of the big bill made me wonder about how residents in the North Bay are billed for water and sewer services. Do people understand the bills? Warning: technical jargon ahead.
 
There were no fewer than seven parts to the calculation of my $189.33 bill: water usage Tier 1 (1,700 gallons at $4.55 per 1,000 gallons), water usage Tier 2 (8,000 gallons at $5.24 per 1,000 gallons), water usage Tier 3 (13,300 gallons at $6.53 per 1,000 gallons), water fixed charge of $9.85, sewer usage charge (1,700 gallons at $12 per 1,000 gallons), sewer fixed charge of $19.57 and backflow program administration fee of $3.
 
The sewer usage charge base and Tier 1 water usage charge base of 1,700 gallons were determined by my average wintertime water use, when, theoretically, all water is being used inside the home and thus adding to sewage. Is this clear? If not, you might not understand this note added to the June bill: “Due to the unusually dry winter months, your sewer cap beginning July 1 will either remain the same as it currently is or will be based on this winter’s average, whichever is lower.” Say what?
 
There are three fixed charges on my bill, meaning that even if I use no water at all and never flush a toilet, I’ll owe $32.12 per month. The fixed charges and the charges per 1,000 gallons of water have been regularly adjusted upward by varying percentages.
 
The bill has a bar graph comparing the “property usage history” over the past year, directions to a website, an invitation to enroll in paperless billing and payments, and a warning that fireworks are illegal in Santa Rosa.
 
Whew! There’s a lot to understand. I suppose it wouldn’t be sufficient for the city simply to say, “You’re going to pay big time if you use a lot of water.”
 
I got help from a billing person at the city’s finance office in downtown Santa Rosa. Just as I was leaving, she said, “You know, the billing is different where I live in Larkfield.” I set out to find out how different. An online search showed that water for Larkfield residents is administered by California-American Water Company. I downloaded the fee schedule and again wondered: Who understands this? For a residential customer with a “5/8 x 3/4-inch meter,” the fixed monthly service charge is $16.32. But for a “3/4-inch meter,” the fixed monthly charge is $24.49. Charges escalate for larger meters? Do customers even know the diameter of their water meters?
 
Then there are the usage charges, with different rates “for the first 7 ccf,” and “for the next 10 ccf,” and then “for all water delivered over 17 ccf.” You ask: What’s a ccf? It’s an abbreviation for 100 cubic feet. There are 748 gallons in 100 cubic feet of water. To adjust the rates for 1,000 gallons, multiply the rates by 1.34.
 
Regarding sewer rates in Larkfield, I called the city of Santa Rosa’s utility billing division. I was told that sewer billing is handled by the California-American Water Company, so I called its local office and was told, “No, we don’t bill for sewer services. You should call the county water agency.” I called the county water agency and was told, “No, we don’t bill for sewer services in Larkfield. You should call either PRMD [Permit & Resource Management Department] at the county or the state drinking water program.” The nice person even gave me the telephone numbers for both entities. I called the number at the state drinking water program and was told, “We have nothing to do with sewer billing.”
 
I called PRMD (a county of Sonoma office) and only reached voice mailboxes. I gave up and called the county tax collector, where I quickly reached a live person. But this person didn’t know whether the county billed Larkfield residents for sewer services. “We might,” she said, “but I have no idea how the charges are calculated. You should call the Sonoma County Water Agency.” She gave me a number, at which a very helpful gentleman gave me complete information.
 
Yes, the water agency coordinates operation and billing for eight different sanitation district zones in Sonoma County. The sewage for Larkfield, Wikiup and Windsor goes to a treatment plant near the Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport. Residents are billed a flat charge of $690 per year. This works out to $57.50 per month, without regard to how much water is used. [My monthly sewer charge in Santa Rosa is $39.97.] The residents of Larkfield have the lowest charge for county (as opposed to city) sewer service. What’s the highest charge? That would be for residents of Occidental, who pay $1,682 per year, or a sparkling $140.17 per month.
 
How about the combined water and sewer rates in other cities for a customer who uses the modest amount of 2,000 gallons of water per month? My combined charge in Santa Rosa is $62.13. In Larkfield, the combined charge works out to $85.86 per month. In Healdsburg, it’s $84.17. In Rohnert Park, it’s $46.62. In Napa, it’s $43.97. And in San Rafael, the combined charge would be about $74 per month.
 
These rates are simplifications of complex rate schedules. For instance, the rate schedule for Marin Municipal Water District runs four pages, with four escalating tiers of charges. San Rafael residents are serviced by two different sanitation districts, although their charges for sewer service are almost the same at $642 per year. Rates for one provider, Las Gallinas Valley Sanitation District, have gone up 112 percent in the last five years.
 
Fair [and clearer] warning: 2,000 gallons per month is not considered a lot of water. If you use a lot of water in these cities, you’re going to pay big time. For instance, during a recent billing period, Third Street Aleworks in Santa Rosa used 135,000 gallons of water. Its water/sewer bill was $2,740.


 

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