Higher water bills could hit San Jose residents by summer, but water policy reps say it’s for a good cause: Preventing disaster amid the state’s second drought in four years.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District, or Valley Water, presented its plans to the City Council Tuesday for rate hikes and an expansion to the region’s water purifying system. Valley Water said the changes are necessary to pay for water purchases for an impending drought, infrastructure upgrades due to an aging water system and other investments.
Currently, Valley Water is the wholesale water supplier to companies across the county. Those companies could raise rates to make up for the increasing costs. These retailers in San Jose include San Jose Water Company, San Jose Municipal Water System and Great Oaks Water Company.
“How they set their rates will affect how we set our rates,” said Jennie Loft, spokesperson for the city’s Environmental Services Department.
Valley Water, the region’s wholesale water supplier, provides flood protection, manages three water filtration plants and several dams in the county.
After hearing reports, the City Council voted unanimously to explore ways to soften increasing water rates, such as reducing fees for low-income residents and search for other cost-cutting methods for projects. The council also decided to allow the city and Valley Water staff to negotiate an agreement to increase local water supply, with an update on negotiations on Jun.15.
Valley Water could raise rates by up to 9.6%, an approximate $4.50 increase per month to customers, which would last 10 years. Plans were put on hold in 2020 due to the pandemic, but Valley Water’s directors will vote on the proposed increases in May.
Rate hikes would take effect July 1.
“We may be OK for the first three years, but those who are devastated because of COVID economically, this might be a huge impact,” said Councilmember Sylvia Arenas. “Because we can’t do anything for those ratepayers, this concerns me.”
Millions of dollars are also planned for retrofitting and upgrading local dams, such as a $650 million upgrade to the dam at Anderson Lake in Coyote Creek—which Valley Water called a top priority—and a $360 million upgrade to the Rinconada Water Treatment Plant in Los Gatos. According to Valley Water officials, the Anderson Lake retrofit will require the region to rely on more imported water as the upgrades are completed.
“With climate change, the need to take care of the environment, the aging infrastructure, both local and imported water is becoming less plentiful and more expensive,” said Aaron Baker, the chief operating officer of Valley Water.
Councilmembers also heard a proposal that would expand the city’s purification facility—already the largest wastewater treatment plant in the county—to help with drought concerns.
The facility implements water purification methods used by other organizations, including the International Space Station. Pollutants get disposed of in the bay and have been generally safe for the environment, but the proposed expansion could create more pollutants than the ecosystem can handle.
Kirsten Struve, assistant officer of the Water Supply Division of Valley Water, is confident that won’t be a problem. Struve said that pollutants will be blended back into the treatment plant to alleviate those concerns.
“We understand that there are concerns on our wastewater partners,” Struve said. “We’re committed to working with them.”
Palo Alto and Valley Water signed an agreement in 2019 to potentially build its new regional wastewater facility there. That agreement gives Valley Water the option to purchase a minimum nine million gallons per day of treated wastewater from Palo Alto for up to 76 years. It will pay up to $16 million for the wastewater treatment facility.
The agreement is an “option” contract, meaning it’s dependent on whether or not San Jose also enters an agreement with Valley Water.
Should San Jose sign the agreement, Valley Water would have to choose between Palo Alto and San Jose to build the facility. Officials say the project will help cut down on rate increases if completed in San Jose. They’re hoping to complete the project by 2028.
“We are looking forward to having this project as soon as possible because as we’re heading into another drought, it’s becoming more and more important to diversify our water supply,” Struve said.
Two major Northern California reservoirs, Shasta and Oroville, are only half-full due to the dry winter, according to numbers from the state. Current dry levels are near what they were during the state’s 2011-17 drought, one of the longest and driest in California history. According to Baker, rainfall is currently 45% of the average amount of rainfall expected.
Editor’s Note: Valley Water CEO Rick Callender serves on San José Spotlight’s Board of Directors.