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The cost of water in most Sonoma County cities and water districts may increase this year, but water officials said it could be the smallest increase in years.

The Sonoma County Water Agency proposed a 5 percent increase in water rates Tuesday in its 2011-2012 budget, which was submitted to the cities and districts it serves. It is up to the cities and districts to determine if they will pass along any or all of the rate increases to consumers.

"There is a great deal less water being sold, which is the main driving factor," said Grant Davis, the agency's interim general manager.

In Santa Rosa, ratepayers would see their water bills increase 2.1 percent, said Glen Wright, the city's deputy director of water resources. The city automatically passes on water agency rate increases to residents, but the expense is only a portion of the city's cost of providing water.

In Rohnert Park, which supplements deliveries from the county water agency with water from city wells, the City Council will decide on any rate increase, said Councilman Jake Mackenzie.

Despite the increase, the water agency's budget proposal was praised by members of the agency's Water Advisory Committee and Technical Advisory Committee, which is made up of officials and staff members from the cities and districts that buy its water.

"I had anticipated a cost increase of 10 percent or more," said Miles Ferris, Santa Rosa's director of utilities. "I am very impressed by the operations and maintenance cost reductions. If water sales had been normal, we'd be looking at zip."

The 5 percent increase is the smallest increase in four years. The water agency last year sold 47,800 acre-feet of water, 4 percent less than the year before and part of a decline in water usage that started four years ago with a push for water conservation.

Spencer Bader, the water agency's administrative manager, said water use declined last year because of the late spring rains and cool summer, which meant less water used for landscaping.

There should be plenty of water this year, Bader said. The agency's water storage at Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino this year are at 100 percent, he said.

The water agency has also cut its administration and operations budget by $1 million, in part by placing employees on unpaid furloughs and by not filling vacant positions.

However, regulations imposed by the federal National Marine Fisheries Service to protect coho and chinook salmon and steelhead this year will cost $3 million. That cost includes replacing the fish ladder and screens at the dam at Forestville, work on Dry Creek, and monitoring and creating a breach at the Russian River at Jenner to create a fresh-water lagoon.

As part of the conservation effort, the district is also seeking permission from the state Water Resources Control Board to reduce summer flows in the Russian River.

While this year's proposed rate increase is small, the agency's water rates have jumped 56 percent over the past five years, said James Downey, president of the Penngrove Water Co., which uses both Sonoma County Water Agency and wells to serve its customers.

To forestall rate increases, the agency should look for ways to increase the amount of water it sells to customers, Downey said.

"You won't be able to cut costs indefinitely," Downey said. "There has to be an increase in deliveries, maybe a goal of 20 percent per year is reachable."

Downey suggested that the agency cut the cost of its water during the winter so users can buy it to recharge the groundwater table.

The proposed water agency increase is the lowest in four years. It increased rates by 6.66 percent in 2008-09, 19.88 percent in 2009-10 and 6.93 percent in 2010-11.

The budget proposal is scheduled to be presented to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in April and would take effect July 1.

The water agency serves 600,000 residents of the cities of Santa Rosa, Windsor, Healdsburg, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma and Sonoma and the Valley of the Moon, North Marin and Marin municipal water districts.

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