Capitol Alert

California ballot measure would broaden conservation water rates

The Carlsbad desalination plant in Carlsbad in April.
The Carlsbad desalination plant in Carlsbad in April. The New York Times

A coalition of California local governments and water agencies Monday proposed a ballot measure to allow local governments to set water rates they believe encourage water conservation.

Introduced by the League of California Cities, California State Association of Counties, and Association of California Water Agencies, the measure comes eight months after an appellate court struck down a Southern California city’s method of charging water users based on a tiered-rate system – essentially charging larger users a higher per-unit rate. Gov. Jerry Brown likened the ruling to putting a “straitjacket on local government at a time when maximum flexibility is needed” given the protracted water shortage.

In the case out of San Juan Capistrano, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled in April that tired rates must correspond to the cost of delivering the service. That was the premise of a 1996 ballot measure stating a city cannot impose service fees that exceed the true cost of the service.

In a prepared statement, the trio of organizations said their measure “recognizes current water realities” by creating the new optional funding method for local governments as well as allowing them to levy fees for flood control and storm-water management. “We will make a determination if we plan to proceed with this measure or some other policy solution in the coming months,” they said.

Jon Coupal, of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the group behind 1996’s Proposition 218, said he was not surprised to see the measure introduced, and said he suspects voters will view it skeptically should it qualify for the 2016 ballot.

“People will view this as an attempt to deviate from what are traditional cost-of-service requirements,” he said, adding, “The most fair way to do it is you pay for what you use.”

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago