Douglas County approves new water rates for Tahoe systems
The Douglas County saga involving three Lake Tahoe water systems closed another chapter Thursday, but not everyone was happy with the cliffhanger.
Several months after considering a complete consolidation of the three systems, commissioners effectively sealed a decision to consolidate them only by name and establish each system’s water rates separately. They did this Thursday by setting two-year rates for the Skyland and Cave Rock/Uppaway water systems, the final two Tahoe systems on the county’s list for rate approvals. Typical residential customers in Skyland will now pay an average stabilized rate of $84.56 per month in fiscal years 2015 and 2016, or about 26 percent less than the $114.23 per month they are used to. Typical Cave Rock/Uppaway customers, on the other hand, will pay an average cost-of-service rate of $172.68 per month in fiscal year 2015 and $195.37 per month in fiscal year 2016 — down from their usual $202.46 per month. However, even with the lower rates, several Cave Rock customers claim the cost for water is still too high in the area. And with no plan for the future, nothing will stop the rates from rising down the road. “It won’t matter if you approve or disapprove the water rate reduction for the Cave Rock water system because it simply isn’t enough,” Lake Tahoe resident Jim Wire told commissioners. “The water users know this is only a short-term solution for a much larger problem that has gone unresolved since the county purchased the water systems. Whether it’s today or tomorrow, Douglas County will be demanding more money from the individual ratepayers.” The Cave Rock water system has been identified as one in need of significant capital improvements, estimated to cost about $8 million. In comparison, proposed capital improvement projects for Skyland and the Zephyr Water Utility District — the third Lake Tahoe water system in the county — are expected to cost about $4.5 million and $1.6 million, respectively. In addition to having the largest capital improvement needs, Cave Rock also has the highest existing debt of the three systems. A general fund transfer-in of $63,763 in fiscal year 2015 and $74,947 in fiscal year 2016 will help the system meet its debt coverage requirement for both years, but many Cave Rock customers at Thursday’s meeting said the solution is only a temporary one. “The only sustainable and long-term solution is to create a true consolidation of all the water systems,” Wire said. County Commissioner Nancy McDermid said the board thought consolidation was the answer when the concept came before the board in March. But then commissioners learned that certain ratepayers, mainly those in ZWUD, opposed paying for another system’s larger existing debt, among other expenses. “It was a huge disappointment to this board,” she said. “Huge.” However, McDermid said the board is dedicated to finding the right solution for the water systems, even if commissioners decided not to consolidate the systems now. “We believe we are positioned now to do the best we can over the next two years to ensure that we can solve the issues, hopefully get the meters in and get the grants to improve the systems,” she said. “There will be a cost, but hopefully through grants it won’t have as big of an impact on the users.” The Skyland rates were approved unanimously, but the Cave Rock rates received a lone dissenting vote from Commissioner Barry Penzel.