Thursday, June 14, 2007

Water Hikes May Swamp Ojai Farmers

Casitas rate plan of 150 percent increase over three years could have a serious effect on Jim Coultas, pictured, and other citrus and avocado growers

By Daryl Kelley

Already struggling after a winter of ruinous winds and killing freezes, Ojai Valley farmers could face a future of soaring water prices if a budget proposed by the Casitas Municipal Water District is adopted by directors this month.
Local farmers would absorb a 50 percent increase under a rate plan on which Casitas has based its draft 2007-2008 budget, and after three years would pay 150 percent more — the same rate as other customers.
But after farmers predicted catastrophe at a hearing Wednesday evening, directors of the Ojai Valley’s principal water agency asked analysts to study options that would lessen the burden on farmers, while still paying for needed waterworks repairs and meeting new state legal requirements.
Indeed, directors said they were proposing the bulk of the increase on farmers only because a State Supreme Court decision last year appears to force all customers to pay the full cost of water they use.
The problem with that, farmers maintained, is that they have no option but to receive costly, highly treated water suitable for drinking, but not needed on their orchards. For the last decade, since a new treatment plant opened, Casitas has charged them a lesser rate for that reason.
And after hearing from farmers Wednesday, Casitas directors said they wanted to rethink how much they will charge agricultural users.
‘’Personally, I’m not ready to do anything: I think we should go back to the workshop mode,” Director Richard Handley said. “We’re not trying to screw anybody, believe me.’’
Board President Russ Baggerly asked budget analyst Denise Collin to factor out the cost of water treatment, including bond payments on the treatment plant, from the proposed rate for farmers to see if that would be more equitable.
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