Increasing the rates has been a "very difficult" thing to do, according to water district CEO Beau Goldie. Goldie said at a board meeting last month that despite internal cuts, some of the costs are going to have to get handed off to county residents.
"It would be much better to not have to bring a rate increase to the public. Unfortunately in terms of the costs that we've been able to reduce and looking at our programs, there's not much of a choice," Goldie said.
Mountain View receives about 10 percent of its water from the district, with the rest coming from Hetch Hetchy.
The revenue from increased rates is expected to pay for about $37 million in extra expenditures the water district expects to make in order to maintain its water supplies and update water infrastructure, among other things. The money, for example, would go towards purchasing imported water for the district's groundwater basin, which is a growing problem for the district.
Last year's drought dropped the amount of water stored in the groundwater basin from 339,000 acre-feet at the beginning of 2014 to 260,000 acre-feet at the end of the year.
An acre-foot of water is equal to the amount of water it takes to cover an acre at one foot deep.
If this year remains dry, that number could drop down to as low as 182,000 acre-feet, according to Vanessa De La Piedra, groundwater monitoring and analysis manager at Santa Clara Valley Water District.
What does that mean? Beyond dwindling water resources for county residents, Goldie said it could cause subsidence, causing the ground to sink and impacting sanitary lines, stormwater systems and could cause saltwater intrusion.
"Depletion of the groundwater basin (would) have a tremendous impact, not on just the water users, but on the entire economy of Santa Clara County," Goldie said.
Other uses for the $37 million include plans to construct and retrofit dams, pipelines and pump stations, as well as maintain existing pipelines in order to sustain groundwater supplies.
Board member Tony Estremera, defended the way the board has handled setting rates in the past and said they've been "very realistic" so far. He said there's been plenty of cuts to staff prior to considering a rate hike, but the drought has pushed the issue to the forefront.
"Everyone has experienced the drought, it's no secret that we don't have enough water," Estremera said.
Mountain View silent on tax issue
Because North County residents draw most of their water from the Hetch Hetchy reservoir, a bump in water rates shouldn't affect residents of Mountain View, Palo Alto and Los Altos too much. But that didn't stop representatives from Palo Alto and Los Altos Hills from coming to the board last month demanding they reconsider the rates.
In a letter to the water district board dated Feb. 10, Palo Alto City Manager James Keene laid out the problem. Palo Alto residents pay taxes that fund the State Water Project but don't receive any of the state water, which is substantially cheaper than water from the Hetch Hetchy regional water system. Why should the the district set water rates, the letter challenges, under the assumption that they should continue to receive 100 percent of the State Water Project tax revenue from the North County?
"First, the Board should develop and adopt Groundwater Production Rates that will allow it to abandon the untenable 100 percent property tax approach this year, and replace it with meaningful movement towards a more equitable funding structure," Keene said in the letter.
Mountain View is in a similar situation, as 90 percent of its water comes from Hetch Hetchy and only 10 percent comes from the Santa Clara Valley Water District. But unlike Palo Alto, which has questioned the tax since at least 2012, the city has not officially weighed in on the issue, according to Mountain View City Manager Dan Rich.
Steve Jordan, a board member for the Purissima Hills Water District, showed up at the Feb. 10 board meeting also demanding the district board reassess their reliance on North County taxes to pay for projects from which they receive little or no benefit.
"We're here because you're starting the groundwater (production charge) process, and the state water project is a core assumption," Jordan said.
Board president Gery Kremen, who won a seat on the board in November and vowed to fight the "unfair" tax on North County residents, said cities like Mountain View and Palo Alto end up paying the most for a water system they can't even use. Kremen said he estimates that the North County, which includes about 14 percent of Santa Clara County's population, ends up paying for about 25 percent of the annual taxes.
"We're subsidizing everyone else," Kremen said.
But if revenue declines, that could mean an even greater rate increase for the rest of the county, or higher taxes for San Jose and other South County cities later on — a prospect that concerned Estremera.
"If we provide some kind of benefit to certain districts because they don't want to pay the taxes they're required to, we have to get it from somewhere else," he said.
Estremera, who represents a district including East and South San Jose, said it wouldn't make sense to lower taxes on one of the wealthiest areas in the county and raise taxes in his area, which he said is the second-poorest area in the county.
The water district will have a series of opportunities for the public to provide input on the rate proposal, including both an open house and a formal public hearing in April.
This story contains 1043 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.