Napa looks into increasing water rates

A five-year schedule of water rate increases proposed by the city of Napa is intended to fill a funding gap created by declining water sales during the California drought.

J.L. Sousa, Register file photo

Napa officials will learn whether the city has the go-ahead to raise the price of water delivery – and to impose a minimum charge on all customers for the first time.

The Water Division is pursuing a series of annual rate hikes designed to double its yearly capital investments from the current $3 million to $6 million over the next five years, a step it calls necessary to cope with falling revenue due to a lengthy California drought and the resulting conversation mandates by the state. To that end, Napa proposes to gradually increase service charges, bringing the bill for a family using 5,000 gallons a month from $28 now to $35 next year, and up to $47 in 2022.

Before any increases take effect, the results of a mail-in vote of ratepayers will be revealed at the Napa City Council meeting Tuesday night. Proposition 218 requires local governments to put rate hikes before its customers, who can block an increase if a majority send back mailers declaring their opposition.

As of Thursday, Napa had received 1,879 written protests out of 30,994 notices mailed to water customers, according to city Water Manager Joy Eldredge. Barring a last-minute surge of opposition letters, the rate hikes are scheduled to take effect Dec. 1 and start appearing on customers’ bimonthly bills in February 2018.

The sharpest departure in Napa’s planned water-pricing model is its first-ever universal base charge for all types of customers, regardless of consumption level. Starting with February bills, all users would pay at least $28.59 every two months for addresses connected to a ¾-inch pipe, with the floor going up for larger pipes. The baseline would be raised each October to a minimum of $33.02 in 2018, $38.16 in 2019, $42.95 in 2020 and $48.58 in 2021.

Currently, only those in single-family homes pay a fixed fee, which begins at $16.72 bimonthly for addresses within Napa city limits.

The water-rate package also would charge customers monthly for every 1,000 gallons they use, rather than imposing consumption-based pricing only on those buying 4,000 gallons and up.

Residential customers would see quantity charges start at $4.07 per 1,000 gallons, then rise to $4.23, $4.34, $4.46 and $4.57 over the next four years. Higher rates would be charged to multi-family complexes, commercial buildings and irrigation-based businesses.

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City water directors have called a rate increase necessary to deal with maintenance costs for water lines and treatment equipment that have stayed the same, even as sales revenue has fallen from $27 million in the 2013-14 fiscal year to $22.2 million in 2016-17. Napa, like other California cities, saw its revenue go down after the state imposed mandatory water-use reductions of 25 percent starting in 2015 as a response to years of drought.

In addition to maintaining about 350 miles of water pipes – including 20 miles of pipe that are nearly a century old – Napa oversees two watersheds, three treatment plants and 14 storage tanks, a network city officials have said would cost $480 million to build new.

Improvements being pursued by the Water Division include pipes to carry water below Highway 29 and along Third Street, as well as treatment plant upgrades to remove trihalomethanes, a chlorination by-product that scientific studies indicate may increase cancer and other health risks in extremely high concentrations.

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Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.