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Summer spike in water bills angering citizens
sprinkler on lawns
Water use is creeping back up in Ceres and so are the utility bills.

July water bills in excess of $250 prompted a number of complaints on social media last week, resulting in at least one call to the Courier.

Nancy Garrad complained on the “Ceres, CA – Memories and Current Events” page on Facebook that her bill was $250 “for nasty cancer causing water (my opinion) and they charge astronomical prices because they can.”

“Mine is over $200,” posed Connie Scott Tigner. “No pool. Only water in the morning twice a week. It used to be $120.”

Don Cool complained that his city utility bill has jumped to $300 per month when he can remember it being $160.

Public Works Director Jeremy Damas said water rates went up sharply on Jan. 1, 2018 and again on Jan. 1 of this year but residents are just now responding.

“I’ve gotten more phone calls here in the last two to three months than I have in the last five years over water rates."
Public Works Director Jeremy Damas

“I’ve gotten more phone calls here in the last two to three months than I have in the last five years over water rates,” said Damas. “I’m not sure how in June and July they’re paying so much more attention to it right now. I don’t know if it’s because they’re using that much more and they sense it in the bill or I don’t know what it is.”

Damas found the water usage for the average single-family home during July was 14,437 gallons and resulted in a water charge of $94.05. That charge is based on the meter charge $38.61 with the usage charge of $3.84 per 1,000 gallons. With the sewer fee of $59.03 and the garbage charge of $21.16 per month, the average city utility bill was $174.24.

He said that a household using at least 20,000 gallons of water per month would have a utility bill of $195.60 and those using 30,000 gallons per month would have a bill of $234.

Not only are water rates going up, the city is finding usage going up as well. Because the region received a deluge of snow and rainfall the past two years to break the drought and overfill lake capacity, Damas said Ceres residents are using more water.

“I haven’t seen a 12 million gallons of water produced a day in three or four years now and we just hit that on July 20,” said Damas. As a result the city is “hitting a lot of people just for warnings of watering on the wrong day,” he added. 

Excessive water use may be one of the leading causes of soaring water bills, said Damas. 

“Three hundred dollars would be if they have just excessive usage,” he said.

Water rates have increased in the past decade for a number of reasons, mostly because of conservation mandates forced on cities by legislation passed by the Legislature and signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown.

In 2009 the Ceres City Council took the brunt of citizenry complaints over an increase in rates as a result of state law requiring all cities to provide water on a metered basis. State leaders forced the issue because of data showing that residents tend to be more conservative with water when billed on a metered basis. The city spent $4.3 million to retrofit all Ceres homes with meters – a cost that was factored into a series of rate increases. Those increases came after the city raised water and sewer rates in February 2009 to fund improvements to the aging systems. The rate adjustment in 2009 was caused by rising production costs, the cost of installing water meters, and treating water to quality standards. The rate increases also make up for a $2 million annual deficit because the city wasn’t charging enough to cover expenses.

Water rates jumped from $15.30 per month per single-family home to $22.30. The rates next jumped to $26.85, $28.20 by 2010 and $31.40 by 2012-13. At the time Ceres resident Len Shepherd suggested the council should “tell the state to go take a hike.”

With the installation of meters, the city adopted a multi-tiered rate structure with a basic rate and a volumetric use fee based on the actual amount of water used per household. In 2017 water rates were based on a basic service charge of $20.23 per month plus a rate of $2 per 1,000 gallons of water used if less than 75,000 gallons are used each month. The volumetric charges increase if more than 75,000 gallons is used in a month. The average single-family household uses about 16,000 gallons each month and less than two percent of all accounts fall into the second tier of pricing.

Enter the joint surface water project planned by the cities of Ceres and Turlock. To finance the project – projected to cost $100 million or less and yet to be constructed west of the Fox Grove Fishing Access south of the Tuolumne River –rates had to increase. To cover costs of construction as well as the higher costs of operations and maintenance as well as capital projects to upgrade the system, in September 2017 consultant HF&H Consultants, LLC of Walnut Creek recommended a water rate hike of 40 percent starting Jan. 1, 2018 and a series of increases annually until 2022. A 30 percent increase occurred on Jan. 1 of this year.

Forecasts of future water bills made in 2017 for the average Ceres single-family home relied on conservative water usage during the drought. They were as follows:

• $40.13 per month in 2017;

• $56.18 on Jan. 1, 2018;

• $76.97 on Jan. 1, 2019;

• $80.82 on Jan. 1, 2020;

• $84.86 on Jan. 1, 2021;

• $88.25 on Jan. 1, 2022.

Mayor Chris Vierra acknowledged that while the rate hikes are always “painful,” they are essential if Ceres is to wean itself from its sole dependence of ground water by participating in the surface water plant. The plant, which is now in the planning stage, will guarantee a source of clean drinking water – drawn out of the Tuolumne River, filtered and piped to Ceres and Turlock – for years to come.

Part of the recent five-year series of rate increases was designed to cover the anticipated $10 million in costs for wellhead treatment since Ceres will still be using groundwater with questionable quality.

Several factors have triggered wellhead treatment. Water quality suffered when aquifers dropped during the drought. Also, as the state itself has continually lowered maximum contaminant levels, city officials argue that the refinement of standards drives up filtration costs with negligible improvements on public health.

When California experienced a drought the state applied pressure on cities and other water purveyors to enact conservation measures.