Solano County

Rural water rate dispute prompts lawsuit

By From page A3 | January 24, 2014

FAIRFIELD — Solano County has a water dispute going that could affect more than 800 rural customers near Fairfield-Suisun City.

The Green Valley Landowners Association followed through Thursday with its previously announced intent to sue Vallejo over the high price of water from the city’s Lakes Water System. It filed the suit in Solano County Superior Court.

“The city of Vallejo has shirked its responsibility and chronically neglected the Lakes Water System,” association president Bill Mayben said in a press release. “It is simply unconscionable for Vallejo to place the full burden of repairing and maintaining this decrepit system on our small community.”

Vallejo responded with a press release of its own. The association is using the lawsuit as a tool in an attempt to buy the Lakes Water System for less than the city thinks the property is worth, the statement said.

“We just do not see any merits to their demands,” Vallejo City Attorney Claudia Quintana said.

Vallejo owns Lake Madigan and Lake Frey reservoirs in the hills above Green Valley, as well as Lake Curry in Napa County. It started building the reservoir system in the late 1800s to bring water to Vallejo residents. It also over the decades allowed hookups to the system in rural Green Valley, Suisun Valley, Cordelia and nearby areas.

Today, the Lakes Water System no longer serves Vallejo. The 809 rural customers near Fairfield-Suisun City in recent years have seen water prices rise steeply because there are so few customers to spread operating and maintenance costs among.

The lawsuit said that Vallejo water customers helped pay to operate the Lakes Water System for almost 100 years, paying 98 percent of the costs. Then, in 1992, Vallejo stopped using the system and put the entire cost for the Lakes Water System on the 809 rural customers.

“Water rates for the nonresident customers skyrocketed as a result,” the lawsuit said.

The Green Valley Landowners Association fears still further increases. The Lakes Water System needs immediate infrastructure replacement totaling about $24 million. Within another decade, still more infrastructure replacement will be needed costing about $6 million, the lawsuit said.

Vallejo built a water system for its own use and failed to properly maintain and replace infrastructure. It then forced onto the rural residents all costs for a system “terribly outdated and in need of immediate repair and replacement,” the lawsuit alleged.

In addition, Vallejo intends to sell the Lakes Water System to a private, investor-owned utility, the lawsuit alleged. Such a sale could boost water rates 300 percent over the next decade, it said.

Vallejo on Thursday released a Jan. 10 letter from Chief Assistant City Attorney Donna Mooney to the association.

It is “public knowledge” the city has explored selling the Lakes Water System, Mooney wrote. But she denied such a sale is imminent. The City Council could not authorize sale of the multimillion-dollar system without public notice, Mooney wrote.

The Green Valley Landowners Association has tried to work with Vallejo for several years to buy the Lakes Water System. Lakes Water System customers would form a community service district of some type to take ownership. Mayben in 2010 said customers would then know where every dollar is going and could make decisions for the water system.

Mooney noted the association’s interest. Vallejo will give the association a request for proposal to buy the system, once the city has prepared a proposal, she wrote. Potential buyers will have 30 to 60 days to submit responses and a proposed sale would go before the City Council, she wrote.

Vallejo in 2009 raised Lakes Water System rates to meet stricter state water quality standards. City officials at the time acknowledged the increases would be steep. They estimated monthly average bills would go from $85 to $165 within five years, not counting a $40 monthly surcharge.

But, city officials said, Proposition 218 makes it illegal to have Vallejo residents subsidize a water system they don’t use. The state law passed by voters in 1996 allows residents to be charged fees only in proportion to the costs of serving their properties.

In its press release, the Green Valley Landowners Association estimated Vallejo would need to pay $72 million to respond to the various lawsuit allegations – $30 million in water system improvements, $3 million a year in operational costs over 10 years and $12 million in damages.

Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/beberlingdr.

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling

Barry Eberling has been a reporter with the Daily Republic since 1987. He covers Solano County government, transportation, growth and the environment. He received his bachelors of art degree from the University of California, Santa Barbara and his masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley.

Discussion | 1 comment

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  • SolanoBusinessIncubator.ComJanuary 24, 2014 - 5:55 am

    Stop fighting and find a way to compromise. Got nothing better to do than mediate and find ways to cut down on water usage during our horrible drought?

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