Long-term NID rate boost put on hold | TheUnion.com

Long-term NID rate boost put on hold

Most Nevada Irrigation District customers can expect to pay higher fees for water this year, but a plan to raise rates annually for the next five years has been put on hold as some upset ratepayers showed up to protest at a board meeting on Wednesday.

The Nevada Irrigation District board of directors voted 3-2 to approve a resolution increasing water rates an average of 6 percent this year for users of raw and treated water.

A typical household will pay $1.50 extra per month, others will pay nothing and some large irrigation users, such as ranchers, could pay thousands of dollars more per year. It is the first water rate increase in two years.

With irrigation season just two days away and a large showing of unhappy water users at Wednesday’s meeting, the board abandoned a five-year plan that would have capped increases an average of 6.5 percent each year, or 32 percent total.

Instead, the board will revisit the rate increase a year from now to allow for more public input. This will provide ample time to find a solution to what some ratepayers consider unfair increases at a time when they are struggling with higher gas and grocery bills.

This year, large and small seasonal irrigation users such as ranchers and people living on a pension will feel the sharpest increases to their water bill, in accordance with Proposition 218, a California law designed to make rates more equitable among all users.

In the past, moderate users paid a disproportionately higher share, compared with people who used the most and least amounts of water, Division 2 director John Drew has said.

Directors Scott Miller and Paul Williams voted no on this year’s increase, fearing the higher costs would have a detrimental effect on local agriculture.

Ratepayer Jack Allen, who runs 150 cows on 1,500 acres in Lincoln, said the adopted increase will raise his water bill by 15.5 percent, or $1,152 annually, roughly $200 per month.

“We will not be able to make up the cost of water in the cow business,” said Allen, who is already struggling with a declining cattle market. He’s been irrigating his fields for 25 years using NID water and this is the biggest increase he has ever seen.

“It’s way, way out of line,” Allen said.

A crowd of unhappy NID customers joined Allen at the meeting to voice concerns that they were not adequately informed of the public protest process.

Under Prop. 218, NID sent notices of the proposed rate changes to property owners and renters who buy water from the district. Directors would be stopped from raising rates if half of all water users in the district protested the increase.

Of 5,800 raw water users, NID received 154 oral and written protests. Another 54 protests were received by treated water users, who make up the bulk of NID’s customers at 18,500.

Rancher Duane Niesen said more people would have protested the rate hike if they had realized they could stop it.

“We were not properly informed,” Niesen said. “The process is obscure and people are still going to have to pay.”

Increasing water rates is one way to meet $270 million worth of looming capital improvement costs, identified in a 10-year financial plan the board approved Wednesday.

Projects include a $30 million major pipeline across Banner Mountain, the $15 million cost to relicense a hydroelectric project on the Bear River, and the $3 million rehaul of the Combie Canal. Miles of aging pipeline and treatment plants also need attention, said Division 3 director Miller.

“We have infrastructure that’s just failing,” he said.

Though the district is in good financial health now, the capital improvements will force it to draw down $30 million from a $70 million reserve fund.

Raising water rates is necessary, because current rates don’t cover operating costs, said Alex Handlers, of Bartle Wells Associates, the Berkeley-based consulting company that spent six months conducting the $40,000 study for the water district.

“Most ratepayers are paying 45 to 60 percent below what it actually costs to provide service,” Handlers said.

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