California urban water suppliers are still required to cut water usage by 25% in 2015
Almost three weeks after California Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that urban water suppliers in the state reduce water usage by 25 percent by the end of the year, an appellate court in Orange County ruled on April 20 that San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water rates are unconstitutional.
The Fourth Appellate District Division Three ruled that the California Constitution “provides that water rates must reflect the “cost of service attributable” to a given parcel. While tiered, or inclined rates that go up progressively in relation to usage are perfectly consonant with [the constitution], the tiers must still correspond to the actual cost of providing service at a given level of usage. The water agency here did not try to calculate the cost of actually providing water at its various tier levels. It merely allocated all its costs among the price tier levels, based not on costs, but on pre-determined usage budgets.”
The court’s ruling has not deterred Brown in his order to cut water usage to address the fourth year of drought in California.
“The practical effect of the court’s decision is to put a straitjacket on local government at a time when maximum flexibility is needed,” Brown said. “My policy is and will continue to be: employ every method possible to ensure water is conserved across California.”
The courts ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed by the Capistrano Taxpayers Association in September 2013. The suit challenged the city water’s new rates, a move the taxpayers said violated Proposition 218, a 1996 ballot measure. The judge found there to be a lack of support for the inequality between the tiers.
Tiered pricing is a method that many water suppliers use to motivate water users to conserve water, espeically in the months where more water is used, such as the hot summer season. According to eague of California Cities Executive Director Chris McKenzie, two-thirds of water providers rely on tiered-rate structures.
In a Sacramento Bee report, McKenzie said that the ruling demonstrates how the Right to Vote on Taxes Act could prevent California government from responding to the current drought crisis, or other such crisis. While he said it was promoted as a way “to protect the people from their government, it is now being used to prevent government from protecting the people’s water resources.”
The court’s ruling does not make the tiered pricing illegal, but rather that the rates have to be tied to the cost of water.