Sonoma County water rates will likely rise despite drought-busting rainfall

Sonoma County Water Agency plant operator Rilee O'Brien monitors the water and wastewater systems for Sonoma and parts of Marin counties at the Sonoma County Water Agency Operations Plant in Santa Rosa on Thursday, November 12, 20176. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)


Reservoirs are brimming and water is in good supply in Sonoma County this spring, but thanks to the drought years, residents will likely see a bump in their water bills in the coming year.

Water consumption fell dramatically over several years of drought, in large part due to extraordinary conservation measures. But the Sonoma County Water Agency says it needs to charge more because the drop in usage translated to a drop in the agency’s revenues.

Over the past three fiscal years, the agency delivered 27 percent less water, leading to a 13 percent decline in water sales revenues last year compared with the year before. While the agency’s costs are also dipping slightly — its anticipated budget for the next fiscal year is about 4 percent lower — that’s not enough to make up for the reduced demand, officials said.

So county supervisors, who also serve as Water Agency directors, will consider signing off today on rate increases of around 5 percent or more for the Santa Rosa, Petaluma and Sonoma water systems during the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The increases are expected to translate into about 90 cents more per month, or less than $12 a year, for the average Santa Rosa household.

“That’s a really good value for such a precious resource, and we have fixed costs that have to be paid, regardless of how much water we’re selling,” said Board of Supervisors chairwoman Shirlee Zane. “We have an old system. We have to maintain over 100 miles of water transmission pipelines, and the cost of maintaining and operating that is pretty significant.”

The agency serves more than 600,000 residents of Sonoma and northern Marin counties, drawing water from Lake Sonoma and Lake Mendocino and selling it to various local contractors. Revenue from those sales fell during the last fiscal year to $31.2 million from about $35.9 million the year before, according to Michael Gossman, the agency’s division manager for administration and finance.

Yet much of the agency’s operations and maintenance costs, roughly half the budget, remain fixed: Pipes still need to be maintained and infrastructure must still be improved to defend against the threat of earthquakes, regardless of how much water the agency actually sells in a given year, Gossman said.

“We can’t let the system suffer,” he said. “Unlike power or cable or almost any other utility, water has to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week with absolutely no outages. Because of that, there’s these costs that we can’t ignore.”

The increases won’t be exactly the same for everyone. Santa Rosa and Petaluma customers will see rates rise 4.98 percent, while Sonoma aqueduct customers will see their rates rise 5.58 percent. Sonoma aqueduct customers are paying a higher rate in order to fund infrastructure improvements needed for their system, Gossman said.

This year’s increases are also smaller than last year’s, when Santa Rosa’s and Petaluma’s rates rose 5.98 percent and Sonoma customers paid 6.94 percent more. But they’re still higher than most of the increases approved in recent years, according to agency data.

Although higher water rates are a cost consumers often need to pay, that should not curb efforts to conserve in the future, said Kerry Fugett, the executive director of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

“When we do the conservation, we still have to pay for those fixed costs. However ... we can’t kind of push aside the need for conservation because of that,” Fugett said. “We will eventually be back in a drought again, and the supply is not unlimited.”

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or