As water rates skyrocket, Golden State seeks transparency

High water rates and conservation alternatives were hot topics of discussion for Claremont residents Thursday night at an open house sponsored by Golden State Water Company. More than 50 locals gathered within the Claremont University Consortium’s Administrative Campus Center to meet with Golden State staff in wake of steadily increasing spikes in the city’s water rates. Thursday’s forum is one of a series of regional open house events hosted by the water company in an attempt to encourage transparency with its customers.

“It’s a prime opportunity for us to show our customers what we are doing to improve water service and for us to find out what our customers want,” said John Dewey, Golden State’s Community Education Manager. “We have been providing water for more than 80 years. Our customers are our top priority.”

Attendees milled about a series of booths presenting data on water quality, costs, and planned improvements. “We want to show our customers how we are investing to provide water quality that meets our customer’s standards,” Mr. Dewey said.“It provides a better way for us to stay in touch, and stay connected with our customers,” said Ben Lewis, Golden State’s Foothill District manager.

One of the night’s most discussed topics centered on the company’s general rate case application. The newest set of proposed rates, first presented to the California Public Utilities Commission in July, comes on the heels of a more than 30 percent increase within the last few years. If the application is accepted, the average customer will see an additional $11.59 added to the monthly water bill by 2013, excluding temporary credits or surcharges, according to a Golden State report. Current rates may increase an additional 27 percent by 2015.

Residents were not shy in expressing their frustration over the staggering costs of monthly water bills, and their anger on yet more increases on the horizon.“My water bill is like a second mortgage,” said Claremont resident Pat Ireland. “In these economic times...it’s infuriating.”

“It’s a monopoly,” added neighbor Barry Wickman.

Golden State officials remain adamant that increases are needed in order to continue to cover rising material costs, maintenance projects, and to repair the aging water infrastructure.

The company has conducted maintenance projects over the past 11 years that have equaled more than $21.3 million in funds, according to information provided by the water company at one of Thursday’s booths. Future projects include repairing the Margarita Well, built in 1928, located within the Claremont district, according to Mr. Lewis.“We want [customers] to be made aware of the different proposed projects and encourage a dialogue,” Mr. Lewis said.

In addition to providing detailed information on planned maintenance projects, Golden State’s Water Use Efficiency Manager Edwin deLeon provided tips on how to cut back on water consumption to address customer concerns regarding high water bills.

“Sixty percent of water is used outside the home...on irrigation,” Mr. deLeon said. “It’s important to be aware of the little things we do on a day to day basis, like the way we water our lawns or how to check for leaks.”

Local Margaret Tie, who says she has seen her bill skyrocket with costs of maintaining her backyard swimming pool, was impressed with the different water-efficient freebies Golden State provided to interested consumers. Items included garden hose nozzles, shower timers, and in-house conservation kits.

“They were very informative. There’s a lot of things they don’t tell you about water efficiency when you go to Home Depot or Lowes,” Ms. Tie said. “I feel like I learned a lot tonight.”

However, some were less impressed. Mr. Ireland says his family has seen his bill double within the past year, and doesn’t feel the water company’s proposed projects and conservation alternatives are enough. “I have done everything I can think of,” Mr. Ireland said. “I have my sprinklers down to a science and my bill is still high.”

Despite grim prospects, Claremont customers aren’t ready to give up the fight to Golden State’s “monopoly.” A group calling themselves Claremont Against Outrageous Water Rates set up shop outside the open house to get started on a rallying cry against the company. The committee, led by Hal and Lori Hargrave, plan on recruiting volunteers, and starting a website and Facebook group against the water company’s rate spikes on behalf of Claremont residents whose water bills have nearly doubled in price, according to Mr. Hargrave.

“The staff [at the open house] was very kind, very professional...very scripted,” Mr. Hargrave said. “We want to express our concern just like other cities are doing. We are urging residents to get out there and make noise.”    —Beth Hartnett