Healdsburg's water and sewer bills, already some of the highest in Sonoma County, are about to jump higher.

The City Council on Monday night unanimously approved an overall water rate increase of 9 percent, effective in July, followed by increases of 6 percent, 5 percent and 5 percent in the three following fiscal years.

The new sewer rates won't take effect for another year but overall will increase 5 percent, 6 percent and 3 percent each year after that.

City Council members grudgingly approved the new rates, saying they were driven by a number of factors, including aging infrastructure, debt from such projects as the relatively new $32 million sewage treatment plant and plans for an extensive irrigation system using recycled water.

"It's kind of a perfect storm," Mayor Gary Plass said. "None of us likes being the highest in the county."

"I want the public to know we are sensitive to the rate issue. It's a very difficult thing," Councilman Jim Wood said. "I don't like the numbers. My wife won't because of her extensive gardening. But if you use the water, you have to pay for it."

The typical, single-family combined water and wastewater bill will go from $117.57 to $133.90 in July. That is for a family that uses 800 cubic feet of water, a month, or about 6,000 gallons

Healdsburg residents already pay higher charges than six other cities, including Santa Rosa, according to figures provided by The Reed Group Inc., Healdsburg's rate consultant.

Cloverdale and Sonoma were not included in the comparison.

Of the more than 4,000 customers notified of the proposed new rates, 223 protested, City Clerk Maria Curiel said.

Officials say the rate changes are intended to better reflect the cost of providing service to customers and to encourage water conservation.

Some commercial users, including restaurants and hotels with restaurants, will see significant cuts in their wastewater bills because, the city's consultants said, current rates place a disproportionate burden on non-residential customers.

The new rates also will help pay for a number of capital improvements totaling more than $18 million.

The largest project will deliver treated wastewater for use in vineyards, parks and open space, allowing the city to dispose of it during the dry months of May through September.

Another project will provide a future connection to Santa Rosa's wastewater pipeline to The Geysers, where it is used to generate geothermal electricity.

Healdsburg now discharges highly treated wastewater into the Russian River, but it is under a deadline to end that practice by October 2014.

You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.