Residents of the small rural community of Keene vented their frustration to a representative from the Public Utilities Commission over proposed increases that would triple their water rates at a public meeting held on Dec. 6 at the Villa La Paz Conference and Education Center.
Analyst Moises Chavez from the PUC listened as customers of the Keene Water System, operated by the Union Pacific Railroad, spoke out in opposition of the planned hikes that would raise the average cost for residential water service to more than $600 per month.
In November, the railroad asked for permission from the state utilities commission to raise rates by 290 percent to recover its rising operating costs for trucking in water from Tehachapi.
However, long time Keene resident Erik Jacobs said the 290 percent is an imaginary number, and that his actual rate hike would be more than 400 percent.
Under the new projected rate structure, Jacobs would have to pay somewhere around $1,300 for a single month, or over $15,000 per year for water.
"That's for a family of five, with a rather normal water usage," he said. "We do not irrigate, we do not use water for any commercial purpose. We just take showers and wash clothes."
Jacobs also added that if his rates were to be raised, he would be forced to move his family, including his elderly mother who has lived in Keene for 43 years, or disconnect his water service. This is something many residents have already done, with connections to the system diminishing from 45 to 22 over the past three years.
"Most of the people here have already gone off the system because they can't afford it," said Jacobs. "My mother had to move in with me because it took her entire social security check just to pay her water bill."
Established in the 1870s as a result of an agreement between the railroad and the local community, which settled an array of issues other than water supply, the operation of the Keene Water System has changed as the railroad's water use for its operations declined and ceased altogether as engines shifted to diesel from steam.
Since then, the railroad has been bleeding money, claiming an estimated $1 million per year in operating costs, something the utility commission's analyst will review during a detailed study of the water system's expenses and requests for ongoing capital improvements.
The review is expected to be complete in about three months, at which time a draft resolution will be available for 30 days before the commission will vote on the rate increase.
"The clear purpose of this new rate structure increase is to make it impossible for anyone in the community but its very wealthiest residents to pay the exorbitant utility rates," said Jacobs. "The fee structure is obviously not intended to be affordable for anyone of average income. I believe the reasonable expectation would be that such clients would simply disconnect from the system," which is what Jacobs believes the railroad wants to happen.