Unsold Water Could Mean Big Rate Hike – July 26, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Daniel Mintz

Eye Correspondent

HUMBOLDT – Facing infrastructure costs that will skyrocket customer rates and the possibility of losing its water rights, the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District will begin implementing a water use and marketing plan this fall.

At a June 14 public hearing on a draft of the plan, the environmental and economic implications of potential water uses were explored.

The draft Water Resources Plan was developed through an advisory committee and released last April. It outlines the district’s options for using the 60 million gallons per day of untreated water that became surplus when the Simpson and Evergreen pulp mills closed.

The industrial water comprises most of the district’s capacity and if it remains unused by 2029, when the district’s state permit expires, a so-called “use it or lose it” clause kicks in and the rights to the surplus could be transferred elsewhere.

Making money off the water would help offset a cycle of water rate hikes – Carol Rische, the district’s general manager, said its seven municipal customers were charged about $700,000 when the pulp mills were running in the 1999/2000 fiscal year, the last year the Simpson mill paid for water.

Following the Evergreen Mill’s shutdown, municipal charges for the 2010/2011 fiscal year were at $4 million and with capital improvement costs, the charges for the year that just started are at $4.5 million.

The district’s infrastructure is a half-century old and significant investment in it awaits. “We need to find new revenues to support that or water rates are going to continue to go up quite dramatically,” said Rische.

The plan’s three main options are using the surplus for new businesses within the district, transferring it to municipalities out of the district or releasing it into the Mad River to improve its flows.

The third option, though not revenue-producing for the District, was discussed at length during the hearing. Jerry Barnes, a retired fisheries biologist, said there’s a steelhead salmon population downstream of the Ruth Lake dam and “you’d automatically increase habitat just through increased flows,” but the fish population level would have to be quantified.

Rische had explained that the out-of-district water transfer option could include transfers within the county.

Arcata resident Patrick Owen, who is the operations manager for the Humboldt Waste Management District, said he’s worked for the county, permitting wells and septic systems, and discovered dry conditions in some areas.

And “being a little bit of a devil’s advocate,” he questioned whether loss of water rights will actually be a threat due to the high cost of pipeline infrastructure that would allow water transfers.

District Boardmember Bruce Rupp said municipalities that need water will be willing to pay to get it. “The water shortages in California are only going to get worse, not better,” he said. “And as the demand for water increases, politically, our ability to manage that situation is going to decrease, not get better.”

Owen said desalination plants are being looked at as a means of addressing water shortages. Boardmember Aldaron Laird agreed, saying there 17 desalination plant applications in the state now.

Board President Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap said marine transport is probably a more likely transfer mechanism than pipelines but the issue needs to be studied. Owen had also asked about the feasibility of local transfers and Sopoci-Belknap said they’ll be costly.

She said Trinidad did a study on transferring the district’s water and decided that it would be too expensive. “So, while it’s on the table for us to look at other areas of the county, infrastructure costs would be quite pricey,” Sopoci-Belknap continued.

The district’s board will adopt a final version of the plan at its August meeting and then begin the long process of pursuing its options.

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