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Calabasas | Valley Focus

Vineyard Sues for Lower Water Rates

July 19, 1996|SYLVIA L. OLIANDE

Citing unfair water rates for agricultural businesses, the owners of Rancho Escondido have filed a $10-million lawsuit against the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District in an effort to force the district to establish separate rates for agricultural use.

"It's not our province to dictate what a municipality does, but it is our province to make sure what they do is fair," said attorney James J. Brown, representing Rancho Escondido, a small vineyard and orchard in the Santa Monica Mountains.

But water district officials said to give agricultural businesses a break would cause rates for other customers to rise.

"We've chosen a rate system that we believe is consistent to all customers," said Jim Colbaugh, district General Manager.

"The reason we have to set the rates where we do is to generate a certain income. If we lose part of that, we have to make it up somewhere else."

Colbaugh said the district does offer a rate for growers in the form of a $137-per-acre-foot discount program from the Metropolitan Water District.

But Brown said the Las Virgenes district has put restrictions on participation that were not in the original MWD program. Colbaugh said he knows of no such restrictions.

In court documents filed July 2 in Los Angeles Superior Court, the grower alleged that the Las Virgenes district has the highest water rates in the state and has never offered an agricultural rate.

At standard rates, Rancho Escondido says it pays the equivalent of 500 single-family homes.

Under the district's current four-tiered system, in which customers are charged based on water usage, Brown said the vineyard will always be charged the highest rate because of the amount of water it uses.

Brown favors a system that would have a residential rate and an agricultural rate.

But Colbaugh said the current system is fair because customers who use the least amount of water pay the lowest rate and to make them pay otherwise would be unfair.

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