A battle in Davis over a proposed doubling of water rates is set to culminate tonight, when the City Council takes up the issue.
More than 4,000 ratepayers out of a total of about 16,000 have filed protest forms against the proposed rate hike under procedures established in Proposition 218, officials said.
That has caught city leaders off guard in the affluent and liberal university town, where residents have voted repeatedly to tax themselves for schools, parks and libraries.
"This is stunning to me," said Mayor Joe Krovoza, a former water lawyer who has been leading the push for rate increases. "It's gotten the community in a lather."
"Justifiably so," he quickly added. "These are big rate increases."
City staff members recently revised their estimates and said water rates for a single family home would more than double, from an average of about $35 a month to $77 a month over five years. Previous estimates said the rates could increase to $96 a month.
Proposed spikes in water rates have proven controversial in communities across the region in recent years, including Elk Grove, El Dorado Hills and Placerville.
The rate increases sought in Davis are part of a larger plan in which the neighboring cities of Davis and Woodland have agreed to buy rights to Sacramento River water from a firm controlled by prominent developer Angelo K. Tsakopoulos.
Tsakopoulos now owns a controlling interest in the water-rich 17,300-acre Conaway Ranch in the Yolo Bypass adjacent to the river.
The cities signed agreements in December to buy rights to 10,000 acre-feet annually of Sacramento River water from Conaway Ranch, starting in 2016. The rights, which extend in perpetuity, will cost the cities approximately $79 million.
The cities have been seeking cleaner water sources to replace aging wells that pull up water heavy in salts and minerals. Officials say the treated river water will provide a healthier and softer supply that will be easier on appliances and plumbing.
More importantly, it will dramatically reduce salts and minerals on discharge and avoid hefty state fines that could accrue in coming years, they contend.
"The absolute stick is that in 2017 we will be subject to wastewater discharge fines if we don't improve our system," Krovoza said. "The most efficient way to improve the quality of what we discharge is to put clean water into the system."
City officials said the surface water obtained from Conaway Ranch was the best solution and Tsakopoulos had offered them a fair deal.
To use the water, the cities – working jointly through the Woodland Davis Clean Water Agency – must build pipelines and a treatment facility with a projected price tag of approximately $325 million. Bonds supported by the rate increases would pay for the new system.
John Munn, president of the Yolo County Taxpayers Association, said his group has been running ads encouraging residents to file protest forms under Proposition 218, which gives property owners more say in rate hikes.
Munn said he doesn't oppose the deal with Tsakopoulos or the proposed switch to river water. But he thinks the massive public works project has been pushed through without sufficient time or effort to look at alternatives.
"What they're proposing to do seems overly expensive, and they just plowed ahead," Munn said. "We just think the cost is extreme."
He said even if Davis were to approve the rate hikes, the city of Woodland, which is more conservative, might not.
"If Davis goes ahead and Woodland balks, it doesn't seem the project is viable," he said.
It would require about 8,000 protests, or 50 percent of ratepayers, to kill the proposal in Davis.
Munn doesn't expect to reach that figure. But he said the large number of protests received could put political pressure on council members to think twice. Residents have until tonight's hearing to submit their forms.