A recent California Supreme Court ruling has prompted water conservation districts like ours to re-examine how we structure groundwater charges for agricultural and non-agricultural users.
In the past, most districts (including the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District) have based their pumping fees on the State Water Code, which requires districts to charge non-agricultural users between three and five times more for their water than for agricultural users.
The State Supreme Court ruling has determined that pumping fees may no longer follow this model. This has prompted the San Bernardino Valley Water Conservation District (SBVWCD) to schedule a series of workshops and public hearings to discuss the situation as it relates to rates charged for customers that pump water directly from wells, particularly residential agricultural users such as golf courses and cemeteries.
The ruling also states that water conservation districts don’t need the approval of property owners or voters to charge fees to fund programs aimed at protecting groundwater.
The Dec. 4 ruling essentially prohibits water conservation districts from continuing to use State Water Code standards in setting rates for agricultural uses, including golf courses and cemeteries. Under the water code, these agricultural uses got a discounted rate of three to five times less than the non-agricultural rate.
The decision stems from a lawsuit filed by the city of Ventura against the United Water Conservation District over pumping fees. The city pumped water to serve residential customers at a rate that was three times what agricultural users paid.
The State Supreme Court, in City of San Buenaventura (Ventura) versus United Water Conservation District, determined unanimously that pumping charges are “imposed on persons as an incident of property ownership.” As such, all water conservation districts need to make sure that their pumping fees fall under the jurisdiction of Proposition 218 and Proposition 26, which among things requires fees to be proportional to the services attributable to each parcel. Charging by use is unconstitutional, the court found.
In other words, water conservation districts can no longer charge disproportional rates for agricultural and non-agricultural users.
The court sent back to the Second District Court of Appeal the issue of whether the water district’s rates “bore a reasonable relationship to the benefits of its conservation activities.” That means the United Water Conservation District – if it intends to continue with its current rate structure – will have to prove that it costs three times more to provide conservation services to non-agricultural extractors who pay three times the fee.