Talks of raising water rates in Grover Beach to support the Central Coast Blue sustainable water project drew the ire of residents before Monday evening’s City Council meeting — and they’re organizing a protest to stop the increase.
A group of around 20 protesters held signs and called to nearby traffic at the intersection of 8th Street and West Grand Avenue, calling on the Grover Beach City Council to keep water rates from going up to pay for the city’s share of the project.
While protesters’ views of Central Coast Blue and its potential benefits were mixed, the issue of raising water rates by 91.7% over the next five years drew unanimous disdain.
The protest, organized on Nextdoor by former Grover Beach Mayor Debbie Peterson, also extended to the public comment session during the meeting.
“The people of Grover Beach simply cannot afford this crazy Central Coast Blue proposition,” Peterson said. “We absolutely want to find an alternative water supply if there’s another drought — which of course there will be — and we can’t work with the one that they’re proposing.”
How much will Central Coast Blue cost Grover Beach?
The proposed water rate increases first were discussed as part of a study conducted by the City Council to determine how best to pay for the Central Coast Blue project.
According to Grover Beach’s website on the project and its costs, Central Coast Blue calls for an advanced water purification facility in Grover Beach that can treat wastewater from Pismo Beach’s wastewater treatment plant before it is injected into the groundwater basin.
That recycling of water can add 900 to 1,000 acre-feet of water to the basin each year, and can provide Grover Beach with 324 to 360 acre-feet of water a year.
Along with the water purification facility, the project will require the installation of eight wells, three injection wells, five monitoring wells and 1.1 miles of pipeline in Grover Beach during the first phase of the project development.
The second phase will expand the new water purification facility, allowing it to purify water from the South San Luis Obispo County Sanitation District Wastewater Treatment Plant, and may require the construction of another three injection wells and six monitoring wells.
According to the city’s website on the project, while Phase 2 of the project is not scheduled, the first phase of the project can operate as a standalone facility.
The project has been in development since 2016, and is now in the permitting and final design stage, with construction expected to start in 2024 and end in 2026.
In total, the project will cost $93 million, with state and federal grants covering 50% of the cost. The remaining cost is anticipated to be funded through low-interest Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act loans totaling $47 million, which Grover Beach, Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande agreed to split.
Grover Beach is on the hook for 36% of those costs, or $16.7 million, repaid by water rates, while Pismo Beach will pay 39% and Arroyo Grande will pay the remaining 25%.
“The proposed water and wastewater rate increases are not something we take lightly and we understand this is a difficult issue for our community,” city manager Matt Bronson said in an email to The Tribune. “However, only a year ago we were contemplating the prospect of running out of water at Lopez Lake and enacting draconian water reductions for our community.”
Grover Beach ratepayers could see 91.7% rate hike
The City Council first heard a study on changing the water rate structure at its Sept. 5 meeting, presented by Tuckfield & Associates.
Currently, Grover Beach ratepayers enjoy the lowest water bills in San Luis Obispo County, with the average single-family home with a 3/4-inch meter consuming 1,500 cubic feet of water every two months, averaging $90.69 per bimonthly payment, according to the rate study.
The proposed rate structure change would be broken up over the coming years, rising by 28.5% in the 2023-24 financial year, 19.7% in the 2024-25 financial year, 19.8% in the 2025-26 financial year, 19.7% in the 2026-27 and 4% in the 2027-28 financial year, according to the rate study.
If the increase is approved by the City Council, rates would rise by 28.5% effective Jan. 1, meaning an average residence paying $90.69 per bimonthly payment would see its bill rise to $120.37.
In an email to The Tribune, Bronson said when the City Council votes on the structure change, they are raising the ceiling on what can be charged, but that doesn’t mean customers will automatically see rates enacted as proposed in the structure.
“The proposed rate structure provides needed funding for Grover Beach’s share of this project along with other operational, maintenance, and capital improvement needs for our water and wastewater systems,” Bronson said in an email to The Tribune. “The rate structure also sets a maximum rate that can be reduced by Council as additional grant money is received.”
That change would raise Grover Beach’s water bills from the lowest in the county to second-lowest in 2024, slightly more than Atascadero’s 2024 rates.
To start a discussion of raising water rates, the city is required to notify all property owners of the coming rate change, to allow for protest.
City manager Matt Bronson said the city made an error in its initial noticing by sending notices to all water customers instead of property owners; while many customers are property owners, not all property owners were notified of the coming change as a result.
At the most recent City Council meeting, city staff restarted the noticing process, which requires a 45-day window to receive feedback and protest from the community, Bronson said.
The City Council was supposed to vote on the rate increase at Monday’s meeting, but the vote was postponed due to the noticing error.
Bronson said the city also made another error on its second notice, specifically the last line, which states that protests submitted in the first noticing window will need to be resubmitted. All protests sent in during the previous and current noticing window will be counted, he said.
“We’ve furthermore sent a letter to each of the individuals who had sent a previous protest in to convey that point that we’ve gotten your protest (and) it will be counted,” Bronson said during the meeting.
Protesters: Cost is too high for Grover Beach
Peterson said doubling Grover Beach’s water rates over the next half decade could be too much to bear for residents.
She said residents already face high monthly bills as a result of Grover Beach’s street repair efforts, which started in 2014 after Measure K-14 was passed by voters.
“We’re the only people in the whole county who actually took out a bond to fix all the streets in our city that needed fixing — which is most of them, as everyone knows — and that now has increased our property taxes 9.5% over and above what everybody else is paying,” Peterson said. “When you add that to the water costs, we come up to being just about the highest costs in the county, and when they double our water rates in four years, we will I’m sure be the highest in the county.”
Grover Beach resident Jeff Bohrer said he, along with Peterson and other residents, have spent the past few weeks knocking on doors and distributing template letters of protest.
Bohrer said he initially received the city’s mailer on the rate increases, and felt “defeated,” expecting the increase to be passed without much input or resistance.
He said Grover Beach is a “last bastion” of low-income and working families in the South County, and they can’t afford to pay higher rates.
“I think that the general consensus is that people don’t want to see the rates increase that much,” Bohrer said. “It’s not hard to talk people out of 91.7% rate increase.”
Peterson said so far, she and other residents have knocked on around 4,000 of the city’s roughly 6,000 residences and said around half of the responses she’s received oppose rate increases.
“People just keep calling me up and saying, ‘I’m walking this (street) today, or I’m walking that (street) today,” Peterson said. “I’ve never seen Grover Beach like this.”
The City Council plans to vote on the rate increases at its Dec. 11 meeting.
If 51% of ratepayers voice protest against the rate increase ahead of that meeting, it will not advance.