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Water Bills Could Go Up 26%; Decline in Use Blamed : Utilities: If the City Council approves, the average residential bill could jump from $18.90 to $23.80 on July 1.


LONG BEACH — The drought is over, but that may not stop the cost of water in Long Beach from going up by as much as 26%.

The average residential water bill could jump from $18.90 to as much as $23.80 on July 1 to help pay for a new treatment plant and other water system improvements, and for more costly imported water from the Metropolitan Water District, officials said this week.

The increase also will help the Water Department make ends meet. Customers are buying less water, which means the Water Department receives less income.

The Board of Water Commissioners has recommended the rate increase in its preliminary budget for the 1993-94 fiscal year, which begins July 1. There must be hearings and the City Council must give its blessing before the bulk of the rate hike shows up on local water bills.

"We recognize this is quite a chunk," said Halcyon Ball, president of the Board of Water Commissioners. "We have a responsibility to furnish an adequate supply of water and healthy water to the citizens, and we think this is what it takes."

During Tuesday's council meeting, Councilman Warren Harwood said the increase worries him and urged water officials to search for other funding sources.

"In my district many people are on fixed incomes," Harwood said. "It's bad timing from their point of view."

Officials break down the increase into four categories.

* The Water Department is requesting an 8% general increase so it can balance its books next year. The department's financial status is serious, according to a report submitted Tuesday to the City Council.

Water conservation during the drought contributed to the problem. Long Beach residents and businesses used 13.4% less water than usual during the last six months of 1992, the report said.

And water use is not expected to increase by the end of the fiscal year. Because of the recent heavy rains, less water will be used for watering lawns and other irrigation.

In all, water officials project a $4.6-million gap between income and expenses for the current year. In response, the Water Department has imposed a hiring freeze, a moratorium on employee raises and delays in improvements to the water system.

In addition, the department is projected to spend about $3 million in reserves by June 30, according to the report.

The general rate increase will raise about $3.2 million a year. The increase will make up the revenue shortfall and pay for minimal maintenance and repairs of water pipe, sections of which are more than 50 years old, said Robert W. Cole, general manager of the department.

"We think we've cut everything out of the budget we can cut," Cole said.

* The Water Department is requesting an additional 8.5% increase to pay for a water treatment plant that is to be built by early 1997 at an estimated cost of $43 million.

The plant will replace a facility used to treat the water the city pumps from underground reservoirs called aquifers. Long Beach obtains about 42% of its water from aquifers.

The new plant will enable the city to meet more stringent federal water standards, the first of which takes effect in 1997. The city would issue bonds to raise a lump sum to pay for the plant.

* A .75% increase will pay to outfit public buildings with special devices required by law. The "backflow" devices prevent water that has left the municipal water system from rushing back in.

* The fourth part of the increase, 9.1%, will be used to pay for the higher cost of buying imported water from the Metropolitan Water District. The city buys 53% of its water from the MWD.

Cole said the rate hike is part of a trend of spiraling water costs. Court rulings have limited the access to relatively inexpensive sources of water. And more stringent health regulations have made water treatment more expensive. In addition, the demand for water will increase regionwide.

"The water in Southern California has been very inexpensive," Cole said. "But what has happened over the years . . . will make water very, very expensive."

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