Situated near two major rivers in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada, residents across the Sacramento region share a proximity to drinking water that other Californians can only dream about.
Their water bills, however, are far from similar. Sacramento-area residents pay wildly different amounts each month for the same amount of water, with some Placer County households shelling out four times what those in Galt do.
A Sacramento Bee review of water rates at 19 local agencies found that residents in some cities can pay hundreds of dollars more each year than those who live a few miles down the road. Factors such as the size of an agency’s customer base, how much treatment is required and what major upgrades are necessary can dramatically change costs.
The Sacramento City Council is expected to consider a plan in March that would hike the average metered water bill from $41.06 to $60.12 in 2019. Despite a 46 percent increase, Sacramento households would remain in the middle tier of ratepayers throughout the region.
To analyze rates, The Bee calculated current costs for a residential customer with a 1-inch meter who uses 12,510 gallons of water in a 30-day month – the average for a single-family residence in the city of Sacramento in 2013.
Comparing water bills can be difficult because no two water agencies are alike and many complex factors influence rates, said John Woodling, executive director of the Regional Water Authority. The joint powers authority serves water agencies in Sacramento, Yolo, Placer, Sutter and El Dorado counties.
For one, size matters, Woodling said. Galt has 7,200 customers, compared with Placer County’s 38,500. The size of the service area is important too – Galt has 62 miles of pipe; Placer County has 627.
“The main driver of our cost is the complexity of our system,” said Ross Branch, Placer County Water Agency’s public affairs director. “Unlike compact service territory you might have down at lower elevations.”
The Placer County Water Agency gets its water from reservoirs in the Sierra Nevada, some of which it buys from PG&E, and from the American River. Moving the water from the mountains to consumers is costly, Branch said.
Then it has to be treated at one of eight treatment plants in the PCWA system. Surface water tends to be more expensive than groundwater because the requirements for treatment are more rigorous and the facilities are more expensive, Woodling said.
Sacramento uses water from both types of sources – wells and reservoirs.
“Both have totally different costs,” said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan Water District, which operates in Sacramento and Placer counties.
For surface water, there’s the treatment plant, the chemicals and power used to treat the water, and the cost of purchasing and pumping it, she said. For groundwater, an agency doesn’t have to pay for the water, and the treatment process is less intense, but the pumping process requires more power and maintenance, she said.
Galt exclusively uses groundwater and has a self-contained, self-sustaining system, said Steven Winkler, director of Galt’s Department of Public Works.
Being a small district “can be a blessing and a curse,” Winkler said. “It’s a blessing because we don’t have a large system to maintain, but the curse is we have a small customer base when we do need something.”
Unless a water agency has water rights, it has to purchase surface water from a wholesale distributor, like the San Juan Water District Wholesale division. San Juan wholesale provides fully treated water for the Citrus Heights Water District, Fair Oaks Water District, Orange Vale Water Co., part of the city of Folsom and San Juan’s retail division.
Water treatment costs are included in the price per volume for SJWD wholesale customers. All five are on the low end for water rates in the region; San Juan Water District residential rates are the highest at $54.09 per month.
Lorance said SJWD’s residential rates are higher than at the other districts buying the same wholesale water in part because its service area is less dense than the other districts. SJWD serves just under 12,000 customers and has about 200 miles of pipe in Granite Bay, parts of Orangevale and southwestern Placer County. The district is also at a higher elevation, she said, requiring more money and energy to pump the water.
Currently, SJWD only uses surface water. The district and the Sacramento Suburban Water District, or SSWD, have been in talks about combining their systems for years, but Lorance said the talks have been put on indefinite hold.
SSWD has a large groundwater operation and combining the two sources would give both districts flexibility in costs and conservation efforts, she said. But officials at the agencies that rely on San Juan as a wholesale water provider expressed concerns last year that their rates would increase.
The age of a system can also impact rates, Woodling said. The need for reinvestment in infrastructure can drive costs up, especially in a small system.
“Some of the newer communities have newer systems and some of the infrastructure costs are paid for by development,” he said. “The older places, when you’re refurbishing, that cost really has to be borne by the ratepayers.”
Sacramento is by far the biggest agency The Bee surveyed, with 136,000 customers and 1,727 miles of pipe.
Sacramento officials say rate increases are mostly needed to pay for meter installation under a new mandate from the state. About 70 percent of the city has meters at this point, and Sacramento aims to finish installations by 2020.
The city’s size is helping to dilute the cost of the meter installation to customers. With more ratepayers, the costs of improvements are distributed more widely.
The other communities surveyed by The Bee are already metered. Galt just finished a $4 million meter installation project.
Galt’s infrastructure varies in age. Some pipes in older parts of town are 80 to 100 years old and require extra maintenance, but other areas are much newer, Winkler said.
“It helps spread costs out over a longer period of time,” he said.
In the Elk Grove Water District, sudden infrastructure needs drove up costs. Based on average assumptions used by The Bee, a resident pays $87.58 monthly in the Elk Grove Water District, second-highest after Placer County.
The EGWD serves part of the city of Elk Grove and is owned by the Florin Resource Conservation District. Roughly two-thirds of its 12,300 customers are served exclusively by groundwater pumped and treated by the district. The other third receives water purchased from the Sacramento County Water Agency, according to General Manager Mark Madison.
Unlike Galt, using groundwater has not saved the EGWD money in recent years. In the mid-2000s, federal standards for allowable arsenic levels became stricter and the district had to abandon several wells, drill new ones, construct a treatment plant and install pipelines, Madison said.
The costs of those urgent improvements are continuing to trickle down to customers, he said.
“We’ve invested a lot of money,” Madison said. “Customers have seen that reflected in their bills, but in my opinion, they do receive a very high quality of water.”
The Woodland-Davis Clean Water Agency was created in 2009 to move the two Yolo County cities from groundwater to surface water for similar reasons – stricter federal and state water-quality guidelines and the declining quality of both cities’ water.
The $228 million project consists of a new regional water-treatment plant, an intake on the Sacramento River and pipelines to and from the new plant. It’s funded primarily by water- rate increases in the two cities. To pay for the project, Woodland and Davis customers have seen steep increases already and pay more than the rates being proposed for Sacramento.
Galt is in the process of changes that would increase its average bill by about $10, moving rates higher than those in Folsom or areas served by the Orange Vale Water Co.
Galt’s base rate is low and the cost tied to use is high. The new rate structure would make the base rate high and the usage charge low, ensuring that the department gets a steady revenue stream as people conserve water during the drought.
There are a lot of fixed costs involved in supplying water, Woodling said. Treatment plant staffing and maintenance, pipe maintenance and administrative expenses don’t go down because there’s a drought, he said.
Editor’s note (Feb. 19): This story has been changed to specify that The Bee’s survey examined rates based on a 1-inch meter. Due to an editor’s error, a previous version did not include this assumption.