By Brian Melley
and Fenit Nirappil
LOS ANGELES — An appeals court decision striking down punitive water pricing that was intended to encourage conservation had water agencies reviewing rates Tuesday and some residents exploring whether to bring similar challenges.
The ruling Monday that found San Juan Capistrano’s water rates unconstitutional came amid a severe drought as agencies try to meet the governor’s mandate to cut water use statewide by 25 percent.
The 4th District Court of Appeal said charging heavy users incrementally more per gallon without showing it cost more violated a 1996 voter-approved law that prohibits government agencies from overcharging for services.
The decision that Gov. Jerry Brown said puts a “straitjacket” on local government makes it harder for cities to adopt similar billings and may bring down some of the higher rates, said Ken Baerenklau, an associate professor at the University of California, Riverside who has studied tiered water rates.
Water departments are being pulled in different directions by Brown’s administration that demanded hitting residents in the pocketbook to save water and the legal uncertainty of charging guzzlers higher rates.
“If you have courts telling you one thing and the governor telling you something else, maybe that’s a reason to sit tight,” he said.
Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies, said the ruling would be a significant concern to water managers across the state if it hampers agencies from using rates to promote conservation.
State regulators are still trying to figure how to direct local water departments to charge customers in a way that encourages saving water and is legal.
Max Gomberg, a State Water Resources Control Board scientist, said the agency will address water rates after it finishes setting mandatory water reduction targets for communities in early May.
Meanwhile, water districts were carefully going over the ruling to figure out if their rates were in jeopardy or how they could develop a pricing scheme that would encourage conservation but not violate the ruling.