What would you do if you knew that your water bill would be $600 per month or more within a couple of years? Would you scramble to sell your home? Take dramatic steps to save water, like cutting down on bathing and reusing laundry water? Try to stop the increase from taking effect?
These are the hard questions faced by 800 households located just outside of Vallejo. These homes have received their water through the Vallejo-owned Lakes Water System for more than a century. But thanks to a mix of short-sighted management practices and unilateral decision-making by city leaders, Lakes Water System customers have found themselves without a vote, paying skyrocketing water costs and footing the bill for cost of operating and repairing this decrepit system.
The Lakes Water System is a large municipal water system that was built by Vallejo in the early 1900s. The Lakes Water System includes three reservoirs in the hills above Green Valley and in Napa’s Gordon Valley. Water from these reservoirs was, until recently, transmitted by large, municipal-sized pipes over 20 miles to serve 30,000 metered connections in Vallejo and to deliver water to families in Green Valley, Gordon Valley, Cordelia, Willotta Oaks and American Canyon along the way.
This system was the sole water source for all of Vallejo’s residents for approximately six decades. Without it, Vallejo would likely not exist.
Although the Lakes Water System was constructed to provide water to Vallejo, the city agreed to allow a handful of nonresidents to connect to the system and receive water. The cost of operating the system was shared among all Lakes Water System customers, including Vallejo residents, for almost 100 years.
However, in 1992, Vallejo unexpectedly shifted 100 percent of the cost of the Lakes Water System onto just 800 customers who lived outside of city limits. These families had no say in Vallejo’s decision and no recourse, even though this decision essentially passed what amounted to a public obligation on to a small group of county homeowners.
Since that time, the remaining 800 Lakes Water System customers have paid some of the highest water bills in the state, averaging $2,100 and significantly higher for other customers.
To compound the problem, Vallejo has allowed the system – now more than 100 years old – to fall into disrepair. An estimated 74 percent of the infrastructure is more than 30 years beyond its useful life. The cost of replacing this infrastructure is $24 million. Within 10 years, an additional $6 million in deferred improvements will be needed. Vallejo expects the 800 households outside of its city limits to pay these costs.
To make matters worse, city leaders now hope to sell the system to a private investor-owned utility. Unlike the city of Vallejo, a private utility is allowed by law to earn a profit. That means that the remaining Lakes Water System customers will be expected to pay not only to operate a municipal water system, but to upgrade the same system that Vallejo ran into the ground, all while lining the pockets of private investors.
The bottom line for Lakes Water System customers is that their bills are likely to skyrocket if such a sale goes through. Given the extreme disrepair of the system, its 800 residential customers are each likely to face annual water bills of $7,000, or more – a cost that will force many homeowners to move, and would leave all Lakes Water System customers with a dramatic loss in property value.
In response to this untenable situation, the Green Valley Landowners Association notified the city of Vallejo this month that if it does not stop its discriminatory water billing practices, Lakes Water System customers intend to sue the city.
The city of Vallejo benefited from the Lakes Water System and from the contributions of the remaining 800 water system customers for decades. It should honor its legal, ethical and fiduciary obligations to these homeowners. City leaders know full well that in other California communities where private water utilities have taken over, the costs to individual water users have grown astronomically.
The Green Valley Landowners Association is acting to protect the fundamental rights of all Lakes Water System customers to affordable water. Public infrastructure projects work because huge costs are shared broadly by the public at large. Vallejo is attempting to leave several hundred disenfranchised families financially responsible for decades of deferred maintenance on a system that delivered many benefits to Vallejo residents.
The Lakes Water System customers cannot sit idly by while Vallejo auctions off their future water security to the highest bidder.
Bill Mayben is president of the Green Valley Landowners Association.