Even after the pandemic subsides, the San Lorenzo Valley Water District (SLVWD) will not turn off customer’s water supply for nonpayment.
SLVWD Manager Rick Rogers in an interview said the board has “a strong position that we should not be turning people’s water off for nonpayment. It’s a fundamental right, but we also have to pay our bills.”
SLVWD, Rogers said, will no longer issue a 48-hour tag for nonpayment. Instead, the district will, once a year, move any outstanding bills onto residents’ property tax bills.
“The outstanding monies will be paid that way, instead of watching our customers struggle each month to pay their bill,” Rogers said. “There will be a lag in the district’s receipt of those funds, but we think it’s better for our ratepayers overall.”
He added: “It never made sense that people couldn’t afford to pay their bills, and yet we added a bunch of penalties onto their accounts.”
To date, Rogers said, the district has about $500,000 in unpaid bills, “which is a lot for a small district.”
“We’re working with customers any way we can, and we understand the difficulties they’re facing,” he said. “This is huge for our district, and we’re looking forward to a new way to do business.”
When the pandemic took hold in April 2020, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order that restricted water shutoffs for homes and small businesses. Newsom last month extended that order through Sept. 30, and earlier this month state lawmakers also announced that they would use federal Covid-19 relief funding to forgive some $2 billion in overdue utility bills as a result of the pandemic.
That news is one of several moving cogs for the SLVWD. The district is also proposing a $10 surcharge to water bills to raise $5 million over five years. That cash will be used to cover “fire-related recovery” projects, Rogers said.
“The monies collected will be kept in a separate account to ensure the funds aren’t commingled with other district accounts,” Rogers added.
According to Rogers, the district suffered about $20 million in damage from the CZU Lightning Complex fires. Water delivery pipes crisscross over the more than 1,300 acres of watershed overseen by the district, and all of them were lost. Add in the destruction of tanks and metering equipment, and Rogers said there’s hardly anything left of the supply network.
Those pipelines, he said, bring all of the northern-most groundwater into the treatment plant; with groundwater making up about 50% of the district’s water source, which creates a real hardship for the district and its customers. It also means that the district’s aquifers are being tapped more than ever. The district is looking to do mitigation, or hardening, of the new pipelines that will be installed. While Rogers was hoping that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would cover the costs, he said that FEMA will only pay about 75% of the total costs of replacement.
Through Proposition 218, ratepayers can protest the surcharge. Those protests must be submitted to the district by Aug. 5. SLVWD will have a public hearing on that date regarding the proposed rate increase.
Rogers said he is looking forward to finding new ways to replenish the district’s coffers in light of the mounting expenses from the CZU fires. SLVWD recently hired a grant writer that is dedicated to investigating funding options for the agency, and Rogers said he is excited by the potential influx of cash that could result.
“We know the money is out there,” he said. “We just need to get our hands on it.”