As drought drives prices higher, millions of Californians struggle to pay for water
California’s water problems have become the subject of constant conversation since a series of historic rainstorms last month, with politicians on both sides of the political aisle weighing in on the matter.
But it’s not just voters who are asking tough questions. Water regulators are asking their own.
The latest data from the state Department of Water Resources, obtained through a lawsuit, shows that statewide water users were only able to pay for about 50 percent of the water they use — and at a price that hasn’t budged for more than a decade.
“There’s a sense, a feeling, not just among consumers but among some water regulators, that we’re losing control of the water system, and that we have to tighten our belts on the water system,” said Mike Freeman, director of the state Department of Water Resources. “We’re all looking at water issues and water issues alone.”
The water department says it can’t offer a precise explanation for the dramatic drop in the amount of water Californians can pay for. But officials acknowledge that the system is in a state of emergency because of the drought, said Tom Collier, a spokesman for the department.
“The only way we think we’re going to get back to a state of balance as far as the revenue side of the ball is to find new sources and/or re-allocate existing sources,” he said. “Both are very difficult.”
About 80 percent of California’s water is used for agriculture, but the state is in the earliest stages of adopting water market reforms designed to promote conservation. That’s going to make it tricky to get back to balance, especially if rainfall — even a healthy year — is lacking.
The crisis: Water users paid only half their water bills in the final three months of fiscal 2009, even though the average water use for the period was just 55 percent higher than the average for the previous 12 months.
The problem: Water regulators have been ordering increases to water users’ bills for almost a decade, and even though that spending has never gone up to cover the gap in demand, water authorities have come under increasing fire for the “lack of oversight” that has led to the price gouging.