In January 2019, customers of the Long Beach Water Department received a mailer announcing the department’s plans to raise water rates by 6% twice this year. The proposal was withdrawn shortly after, but on June 13, the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners approved a new proposal to increase rates by 12%, effective October 1. This proposed increase will now be subject to a public hearing process and, ultimately, a vote by the Long Beach City Council.
Chris Garner, general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, said the first proposal was withdrawn after an outside attorney contacted the department, suggesting that the notice sent out to customers provided insufficient information on the use of additional revenues created by the increase. “Our attorneys felt like it would pass, but we wanted to take a conservative [approach],” Garner said. To make up for the missed opportunity of the previously proposed mid-year increase of 6% in April, followed by another 6% increase in October, the department is now proposing a one-time rate increase of 12%.
According to Garner, the department needs the additional revenue the increase would create to revitalize local wells and upgrade an aging pipeline system. He recognized that a rate increase of this size could be jarring to customers. “This is much higher than normal,” Garner said. “But we have some big items coming up.”
One of the costliest projects to be funded by the rate increase is the rehabilitation of local wells to maximize the department’s use of its local water reserves. “Right now, we’re under-pumping that, because we don’t have the physical capability with the existing wells,” Garner said. Instead, the city is purchasing water from the Metropolitan Water Authority, which comes at double the cost of locally sourced water, according to Garner. “That adds millions of dollars to our expenses and to our customer’s [expenses],” he explained.
A cost analysis by a team of city engineers estimated that the rehabilitation of the city’s 30 local wells will cost approximately $30 million, Garner noted. “Whether we put our money towards imported water or towards well development, that’s a decision that the [Board of Water Commissioners] has to make,” he said. “Certainly it makes sense, from my standpoint, to invest in our local system.”
Repairs and replacements to the network of underground pipelines delivering water throughout Long Beach are another area of investment into the local system to be financed by the additional revenue. “It’s really the infrastructure that we’re trying to target,” Garner explained. “It’s much cheaper, in the long run, to do it proactively, before they break.” The department already replaced one of the oldest elements of the over 2,000-mile-long system: a former cast-iron pipeline. Following the replacement, the number of main water breaks went down from 200 to approximately 30 per year, according to Garner.
In presentations to the department’s board of commissioners, staff projected further, albeit smaller, rate increases in the upcoming years. Sewer rates are expected to stay the same, except for a possible increase of 6% in 2023. “What people tend to forget is that the current sewer bill in Long Beach is actually where it was about 10 years ago,” Garner said. “We look at the combined bill and we look at the impact on our customers from that perspective.”
The next step in the approval process for the proposed rate increase will be a public hearing to be held at the water treatment plant on Redondo Avenue and Spring Street in August. There, staff will present information on the use of the expected revenue and a comparison of water rates in the state’s 10 biggest cities as well as the Golden State Water Company, which services parts of Long Beach. If approved, the proposal will move on to the city council, where it will be discussed and voted on as part of the city’s budgeting process in September.