Op/Ed: With all the rain, why are my water rates going up?

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Pacoima Spreading Grounds

It’s no surprise that this is one of the wettest years on record for California. Here in Burbank, it seems like every few days we’re dealing with another atmospheric river flowing into town. With all the rain, you might have heard of some water restriction changes coming from Governor Gavin Newsom as well as other officials and you’re wondering what this means for us in Burbank.

Burbank has no water rights

As I explained in my op-ed earlier this month, one of the facts that surprises people when I talk about our water supply is that Burbank has no water rights. We cannot collect, store, and treat rainwater or stormwater. In 1979, a court ruled that surface and groundwater derived from precipitation in the San Fernando Valley belong to the city of Los Angeles. Instead, we are 100 percent dependent on water that we purchase from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD). Burbank receives treated water from the Colorado River and from the State Water Project (SWP) and MWD determines which source we receive based on their operating conditions.

What about the rain?

All the rain and snowmelt comes to Burbank in the form of untreated water that we purchase and store at the Lopez and Pacoima Spreading Grounds. Water is put into large pond-like basins at these facilities and seeps into the ground where we store it for future use. We then pump the water from the ground and treat it before mixing it with treated water purchased from MWD – and this is what we deliver to our customers.

With all the rain that the state has received, more water is available from the State Water Project (SWP) and that is great news! Normally, we would begin storing this water immediately, but this is not a normal year for two reasons.

First, we are catching up from last year when there was very little water available from the SWP. The SWP water allocation was limited to communities that are wholly dependent on SWP supplies. Those communities were placed on severe water use restrictions. Had we elected to purchase water last year from the SWP and been dependent on their supply, we would have had to severely restrict water to our customers, including limiting outdoor watering to one day a week. We avoided this by using water that was stored in the ground from previous years*. As a result, the amount of our stored water has been reduced because we could not replenish the amount of water that we pumped out of the ground.

Second, the Pacoima Spreading Grounds are closed. Los Angeles County is constructing improvements to the grounds that will not be completed until the fall of next year. If we were to purchase water from the SWP now, we’d have nowhere to put it. The Lopez Spreading Grounds are open, but the priority is to percolate as much stormwater as possible. Lopez is also much smaller than Pacoima

What are our options?

On March 24, less than a week before the writing of this article, the SWP allocation jumped to 75 percent from 35 percent – a huge jump in only one month. This extreme and rapid change makes water planning difficult. But as a result of this latest increase, water from the SWP will be available well into the fall which is welcome good news. So, although we will get a late start on storing the water and the amount that we can store at Lopez is less than at Pacoima, we are confident that we can comply with the governor’s executive order that eases the voluntary reduction in water use by 15 percent from 2020 levels and can revert to our Stage II water sustainability ordinance. 

However, we have to be mindful that we must always conserve water to ensure that we preserve our groundwater storage so that we are prepared for future dry years. The chart below shows how variable the SWP allocation has been since 2019 – high flows bracketing three very dry years.

Burbank has unique needs and supply constraints, and we must manage our water purchases and storage wisely. On March 20, Newsom ended a March 2022 order requiring state water agencies to activate Level 2 of their water contingency plans. These plans are required by state law and are customized by local water agencies based on their infrastructure and management. As part of these plans, each agency must meet the minimum requirements for water conservation but have the option of adopting more strict requirements to meet their needs.

We believe that going to a three-day per week watering schedule this summer (from two days per week last summer) is appropriate given Burbank’s current situation. Additionally, on March 20, Newsom ended a voluntary call for a 15% reduction in water use. It’s important to note that this does not mean we can begin to use more water in our homes, but rather adapt our thinking to move away from numeric targets and focus on making conservation a way of life.

What does this mean for rates?

Since we are 100% dependent on imported water that we purchase from others, the price that we pay is also controlled by others and their cost to deliver our water is going up. They have to buy chemicals, pay for energy, and maintain their infrastructure – and so do we. Also, our business is unique in that we urge customers to consume less of our product, which reduces our revenue even as prices go up.

However, when calculating rates, how much water we have is only one part of the equation. There are other fixed costs that have increased substantially since the beginning of the pandemic: operating costs to deliver water to customers’ homes and businesses, costs of materials and water treatment, and costs passed down to BWP from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) cumulatively have necessitated the need to increase the water rates. 

Beginning July 1, 2023, BWP is proposing a water system average rate increase of 9%.

Our core mission remains to provide a reliable, uninterrupted supply of high-quality water at a reasonable price to our Burbank community, and as a public agency we cannot take in funds beyond the costs of providing the service. As costs for providing that service increase, we need to adjust our rates to accurately reflect the cost of water service. A single wet season allowing BWP to have access to more water does not offset these costs. We still have to pay for the water, treat it, and then distribute it to our customers. We must continue with our capital improvement projects, such as replacing aging pipes, infrastructure upgrades, and preparing storage reservoirs for the next dry spell which could happen as early as next year. 

*On March 14, 2023, MWD decided to no longer mandate emergency water restrictions for the nearly seven million people who are wholly dependent on SWP supplies. Since BWP elected not to spread water from the SWP, this announcement did not affect us.

    2 COMMENTS

    1. The state water allocation will soon go to 100%. Are you prepared for that? Water is being released from the reservoirs. Is BWP doing their share to help with this problem. If not, what will you do? The snow melt will fill up the reservoirs. What action will BWP do to help the people of the state of California so floods will not cause damage? Have you contacted the Governor’s Office? Now is the time for the BWP to show bold leadership. This is not business as usual.

    2. Mr. Wilson thank you for your post.

      Dear fellow Burbankers, a nontrivial portion of your utilities is the pay of the Burbank Water and Power employees who earn up to $521,242.86 in total compensation per year (source: Employee Gross Earnings report from 2022, see this link: https://bit.ly/410sGvF).

      I am grateful for reliable power and clean drinking water, however, the pay is a concern, and as Burbank compares notes with other cities, it seems the salaries keep rising.

      Many cities have looked at outsourcing certain jobs to bring costs down. I have been told that will “never” happen in Burbank because it is a union town.

      As long as Burbank Water and Power pay these high salaries with guaranteed increases, we will continue to see rising utility rates.

      And up to 7% of the utility billing is transferred to the General Fund. That is referred to as the “In-Lieu Transfer” on the bill which has nothing to do with the delivery of utilities.

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