The Water Replenishment District (WRD) has been rejected for the fourth time in court for its repeated effort to shut down water wells in Signal Hill and neighboring cities for non-payment of assessments.
Earlier this month, Judge Ralph Dau rejected the WRD’s fourth request to shut down water wells in Signal Hill, Cerritos, Downey, Bellflower and Pico Rivera because those Cities have refused to pay what they call an “illegally levied assessment.”
The legal battle between the Cities and the WRD is complicated and contentious. Last year, the Cities alleged that the water agency overcharged them and violated the California Constitution by illegally raising assessments in 2010-2011. As a result, the Cities have ceased paying the $244-per-acre-foot assessment to the WRD because there is no legal way to shell out what they’re calling an unlawful fee.
“Our Cities have stopped paying these illegal assessments, because doing so would constitute a gift of public funds,” stated John Oskoui, Downey Director of Public Works, in a June 18 city press release.
Groundwater is replenished by the WRD to cities relying on it to supply local residents and businesses with drinking water. To clarify the measurement of an “acre-foot,” WRD Board Vice President Lillian Kawasaki, whose jurisdiction includes Signal Hill, describes it the following way: “If you looked at a football field and filled that up with one foot (of water), that’s an acre-foot.” That is enough drinking water to supply approximately three families for a year. Signal Hill gets about 2,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year, according to Signal Hill City Manager Kenneth Farfsing.
That price increase is still competitive and less than half the price of imported water, says WRD General Manager Robb Whitaker. “Because a lot of (our own) cost increases are due to the cost of imported water that we have to buy the replenishment assessment and the cost of groundwater continues to be about a third of the cost of imported water,” Whitaker said. “We’re buying imported water for over $1,000 an acre-foot right now.
“Our assessment (and) any increases that we’ve had over the past five or ten -years, (have) a direct impact over the water costs being charged to us by the agencies we buy water from,” Whitaker said. Those agencies include the Central Basin Municipal Water District. “They’ve had some huge increases.”
The court ruled the WRD assessments were subject to Prop 218, which was passed in 1996. To recoup those overcharges from the WRD, the Cities filed a damages lawsuit, however, there is still no court date set. As a result, the Cities have not been ordered to pay past assessments until the damages suit is settled.
While other cities are paying their water bills, the Cities’ fees are adding up fast and contribute to the controversy. “What’s ironic is all the other (Cities) are still paying,” Kawasaki said. “Long Beach, LA and Lakewood have been really good about paying their bill. Now they’re upset because they’re paying their bill and those other Cities are not.”
Kawasaki said the Cities are still getting the benefit of water being put back in the ground and made available to them. “We believe that they should pay their bills as all the other water purveyors have been paying,” she said.
Although Signal Hill is not paying any assessments to the WRD at this time, they have passed increased fees on to residents. The City is collecting that money and holding it in an escrow account until the damages suit is resolved in court.
Signal Hill Public Works Director Steve Myrter says the City can satisfy most of its water demands from WRD and buys very little imported water. “We can meet 90 to 95 percent depending on the year,” said Myrter. The remaining five to 10 percent of the City’s water needs come from imported water from Northern California and Colorado. That water must be purchased from the Metropolitan Water District at almost double the price of WRD groundwater.
Farfsing says that the City of Signal Hill does indeed follow California’s Proposition 218 when it raises water rates. “We go through Prop 218 notice and public hearings,” said Farfsing. “So we basically mail out notices to everyone within the community that we’re considering a rate increase, and we hold public hearings, and people come in and ask questions.”
The Cities contend that when the WRD raises assessments without holding public hearings or “protest hearings,” they are not following Prop 218. “And we believe they need to,” said Farfsing. “And that’s what this dispute is about.”
Farfsing’s press release earlier this month stated: “The Court originally ruled against the WRD in April of 2011, concluding that the WRD violated Proposition 218 when the agency levied excessive water replenishment assessments against the Cities without allowing them to protest.”
Whitaker believes Prop 218’s effects on the process are more involved than holding protest hearings about assessment increases. “Prop 218 isn’t just about notifying people, it’s also about doing a cost-of-service study for the two groundwater basin areas within our service region,” said Whitaker.
He explained that three of the five Cities have made three unsuccessful attempts in the Legislature to develop a split-assessment approach to the WRD’s replenishment assessment. However, he believes the split assessment is a very divisive issue that will pit pumpers from different regions of the WRD service area against each other and would likely initiate very expensive and prolonged litigation regarding water rights between those entities, versus continuing on the replenishment path that has served the region well for the past 50 years.
“They want us to look at how much it costs to replenish each basin, which is just going to start World War III among the pumping community,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker himself is a water customer in Signal Hill. “(Signal Hill is) continuing to pump. I live in Signal Hill. I’m a resident. I’m paying my water bill. And they’re pumping water and serving it, and they’re not paying for their pumping (to the WRD),” he said. “(The WRD is) buying water to put in the basin to replenish everyone’s pumping. They’re pumping water right now, and they’re not paying for it.”