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Helix Water Board weighs fines for excess water use

By Janis Russell

May 14, 2015 (La Mesa)- At yesterday’s board meeting, staff at Helix Water District presented a drought action plan and resolution to the board.  No action was taken, with the measure slated to be brought back to the board for action  on May 20th. If approved, the plan calls for tough enforcement and hefty fines of up to $500 against heavy residential water users who fail to cutback water use.

Michelle Curtis, the district’s water conservation specialist, gave a PowerPoint presentation on a proposed drought action plan. On May 5 this year, the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) approved regulations to achieve Governor Brown’s executive order requiring 25% reduction in water use statewide. Helix Water District is required to make a 20% reduction in its water use from June 1, 2015 to February 2016. Currently, Helix has been in a level two drought alert since August 2014. Since then, customers have reduced their water use up to 6%. Since 2007, there’s been a 22% water reduction. But water reduction needs to be increased significantly now.

To achieve this, the district is proposing increased public outreach and education, increased restrictions and enforcement, and drought penalties. The district has already used a wide variety of communication to the public including TV and radio ads, newsletters, web articles, and more. Helix also plans to conduct classes and workshops. More public outreach will follow when the board takes action at the May 20 meeting. For increased restrictions, customers will need to limit outdoor water use to two days a week instead of three days.

For increased enforcement, customers will receive a courtesy letter if they’ve been in violation and have increased water use. Customers will need to respond to staff within 2 weeks of receiving the letter. If staff gets no response, then a violation notice is sent and customers will have an additional five days to comply prior to the district issuing a fine. Using the district’s drought response policy and procedure, there will be a potential fine up to $100 for the first violation, $200 for second violation, and $500 for each additional violation added to the customer’s bill. The district doesn’t want to have to fine anyone. “Our intent is to try to educate,” Curtis said.

Lastly, drought penalties provide a price signal to encourage further conservation. A temporary penalty will be assessed on bills beginning July 20, 2015 to allow for advance notice. Then the penalty will be reassessed January 1, 2016 when adoption of new rates resulting from the recent cost of the service study is planned.

The penalty would only be for tier 3 domestic class’ outdoor water use. Different penalty scenarios for using more than 31 units of water per billing cycle were: no drought penalty, 10% drought penalty, 15% drought penalty, and 20% drought penalty. For 10%, penalty charge would start at $0.55, and then go up significantly with 50, 75, 100 and 150 units. For 15%, the penalty charge would start at $0.83. For 20%, the penalty charge would start at $1.10.

The district is also hiring one additional, temporary, full time water conservation specialist to help with drought efforts.

Public comment began. Rick Sparhawk was frustrated over the board not doing anything about the drought problem. “We ask you to cure this problem and you don’t.” He felt that the tier rates were unconstitutional.

Barry Rosenblatt mentioned he got a letter from the district saying he overused his water. He had been trying to get ahold of the district a couple times, but without success. He was at the meeting yesterday to inform staff about his attempt to try to call.

Marty Ornish thinks the tier 3 penalty “is completely incorrect… [It] is unfair to property owners who have already cut back on water usage.” She mentioned that she does military showers, washes dishes in a tub and then dumps out leftover dirty water on her weeds. “The result of everybody cutting back in my neighborhood is dead trees… I think this so-called penalty is a tax and not a good way to change behavior,” she added.

Sandia Tuttle, who teaches English composition at Grossmont College, is a tier 2 user. “Some of us are in need of fire barriers. Dead weeds don’t make good fire barriers. Those who have large properties need not be kept at the same standard. Many of us have ½ to two acres of property. Can we please have a break on tier 3?”

Sherry Reigner told the board, “I look at the state and ask why we’re not building more reservoirs.. This is the definition of insanity. I hope the board will reconsider.”

Lisa Stoia, director of administrative services, told the public, “Do what you can to preserve trees.” Helix is asking the public to just use less of their product. Kelly Salt from Best, Best and Krieger also brought up that that tier rates are not unconstitutional due to prop 218. “The state compared the 2014 water usage and determined that Helix Water District should conserve 20%”, Salt added.

The board then took time for discussion.

Joel Scalzitti, director of Division 5, has been a tier 3 customer. “I share some of the frustrations with the public… My suggestion would be to take this back and see what we could do for tier 3 people.”

Kathleen Coats Hedberg, director of division 4, praises ideas for education. “[But] I don’t like the idea of penalizing tier 3 customers. My vote would be no penalty. If there is a penalty, it should be for all customers.”

Charles Muse, Vice President and director of division 3 (photo, left), mentioned, “It’s a pretty targeted group of people that will be penalized for outdoor water use in tier 3… I think a penalty is enough; I would prefer to use 14% for tiers 2 and 3. Hopefully this won’t last too long.”

De Ana R. Verbeke, President and director of division 2, also feels tier 3’s pain and asked the board to come to a consensus.

Muse said, “It’s a given for education and outreach.” He also approved the increased restrictions. Coats Hedberg also voiced her support for more education and outreach.

Scalzitti wanted staff to focus on other ideas for increased restriction. John B Linden, director of division 1, wanted the focus to be on conservation. He brought up the Water Conservation Garden.

All board members all came to an agreement for two days a week for outdoor water use.

After much discussion, the board agreed on the 10% drought penalty.

Later on, the board and staff met for a five year projection workshop to discuss its financial plan for the next five years.

Board action will be taken at the May 20 meeting at 2:00 p.m. at the Helix Water District headquarters.