Drought weed bill dominate meeting
Two issues consumed most of the Ramona Municipal Water District Board meeting last week:
• Options district farmers have for dealing with the ongoing water shortage, and
• What to do about a $16,943 lien the district put on a Ramona couple’s property after a private firm cleared brush from the couple’s lot.
The Nov. 25 meeting attracted about 40 people, many of them farmers who had received a mailer from the district a week earlier letting them know that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) will allow them to opt-out of a program that since 1994 has charged them reduced water rates but this year cut their allocation 30 percent.
MWD, a wholesale water provider for the region, supplies water to San Diego County through the San Diego County Water Authority (CWA), an agency with 24 member district, one of which is RMWD.
The Ramona district has 324 customers participating in MWD’s Interruptible Agricultural Water Program (IAWP) and CWA’s companion Special Agricultural Water Rate (SAWR) Program. In exchange for the water rate discounts they receive, they agree to be the first to take less water during a drought.
To be in the discount program, customers must have more than one acre and a cash crop.
Facing a worsening water shortage, effective Jan. 1, 2008, certified agricultural customers were limited to 70 percent of their water use in 2006-07. Because RMWD could use water from Lake Ramona, water board directors told customers in the discount program they could use 85 percent of their baseline allocation, effectively cutting MWD’s 30 percent cutback in half to 15 percent.
Customers exceeding their 70 percent allocation in other districts face penalties. Because the Witch Fire in October 2007 destroyed so many crops in the district, RMWD usage was down considerably and the water board waived penalties for 2008 because the district was not being charged penalties.
But, with a continuing water shortage threatening cutbacks for all district customers, the directors voted 4-1 to pass through any penalties the district may receive in 2009. Director Kit Kesinger dissented.
Mike Dillon, an avocado farmer, thanked RMWD directors for their past support of agriculture in the community.
“For everybody in this area, it’s been a tough year and a half,” he said. “I’m a face on one of these growers. We got hit by the fire and we lost trees.”
Dillon said he lost 90 percent of his crop in the past year: “150,000 pounds the year before, 15,000 pounds this year. Yet the bills go on.” In addition to destroying avocado trees and crops, the fire destroyed almost all of his irrigation system, he said, explaining he had “no insurance for trees and things like that, so it is a gamble … never thought it was going to be quite that big a gamble.”
“There are people out there, like our grove, we’re trying to rebuild,” said Dillon. “…We’re not out to make big money, but we like agriculture. It’s just got in the blood, I guess, but it cost a lot of money.”
He asked the board to consider the penalty structure, “from the standpoint of the district and also nurturing those customers and helping them bring those groves back and come online and hopefully be the customers they were pre-fire.”
“At least keep it in your thinking, maybe checking along the way and see that that might be a good thing to do,” said Dillon.
The district planned to mail a packet to certified ag customers this week with more details about their options, effective Jan. 1.
The three choices facing IAWP/SAWR customers are:
• Opt-out of the IAWP and stay in SAWR,
• Opt-out of both the IAWP and SAWR programs, or
• Continue in both programs.
A decision to drop the discount program is a permanent one, RMWD Chief Financial Officer David Barnum said.
On Oct. 14, MWD approved phasing out the IAWP program over the next five years — 20 percent per year — and the option to drop out of the program, Barnum said. CWA is reviewing its discount program and has said it will keep it in 2009 and 2010, according to a staff report to the board.
Customers dropping out of the program would no longer receive water rate discounts. Customers in the program receive a credit of $185 per acre foot for untreated water and are charged $1.34 per unit rather than the $1.76 per unit other customers pay for untreated water, said Barnum. An acre foot is 325,851 gallons.
Of the 10 discount program customers who called the district after receiving the initial mailing, some are interested in dropping out of the program, said Barnum.
“Staff is not providing any direction in which option ag customers should take,” he said. “We provide them information so they can make informed decisions.
“We certainly can’t predict the future, we can’t predict what Met is going to do, we can’t predict what the weather’s going to do.”
The water shortage is the result of several factors: court-ordered restrictions on pumping from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, reduced allocation from the Colorado River, and below-average rainfall and snowmelt.
Water agencies have called for water conservation and may call for cutback for all customers some time next year. If districtwide cuts are required, ag customers staying in the discount program will have that percentage added to this year’s 30 percent cutback.
“Nobody knows until it gets done raining next spring whether they’re going to extend the reductions to a whole group of new people, which are the regular people that are full-service customers,” said RMWD Division 2 Director Doug Wilsman.
In the matter of the $16,943 lien on Kevin and Carolina Leap’s property on Concorde Hill Lane, the board unanimously agreed to temporarily release the lien pending the issue returning to the board in January. Board President Robert Krysak appointed an ad hoc committee of Wilsman and Division 4 Director Jim Robinson “to evaluate not only this circumstance but the entire circumstances associated with FPS (Fire Prevention Services) and our relationship with them.”
“I want to get this process on the road, because their (FPS’) contract ends Dec. 31st and the new board’s going to have to deal with that pretty quickly, so I’d like to have some motion on the action,” said Krysak.
In January, the five-member water board will have two and perhaps three new members as a result of the Nov. 4 election. As of the Sentinel’s press time on Tuesday, official results of the Division 5 election were not known. Incumbent Everett “Red” Hager Jr. had 1,501 votes and challenger Patricia Boetcher had 1,499.
The nearly one-hour discussion of the Leaps’ appeal of the weed abatement bill and subsequent lien included testimony from district staff and legal counsel, Kevin Leap, the Leaps’ attorney, family members, Division 1 Director-elect Darrell Beck and two members of the audience.
The district contracts with Fire Protection Services (FPS), a private contractor, to execute a vegetation and rubbish management program to reduce the potential for fire spread. A representative of FPS was on vacation and unable to be at the appeal hearing, RMWD General Manager Ralph McIntosh said.
After finding the Leap property in violation of weed abatement regulations on Nov. 15, 2007, FPS sent four notices that all were returned as “unable to forward,” states a report to the board. In January, workers from another firm began clearing the property. Kevin Leap said an unidentified contractor refused to give him any information about the work and he called the sheriff’s Ramona Substation.
“The sheriff determined that I was not given proper notice and that they must leave the property,” Leap wrote in a written appeal.
The notices were mailed to the Leaps’ previous address in Poway. The Leaps moved from the Poway address in 2003 and live at the Ramona address where the brush was cleared.
Leap said the first time he saw or read the Notice of Abatement from FPS was in October, when his wife went to the RMWD office to ask about the tax lien against their property.
“What bothered me in reading this was that we kept sending the notices to the same address that we were getting the mail back ‘unable to deliver,’” Krysak told RMWD Fire Marshal Calvin McVay. “You know, the old story is the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. Were any efforts made to actually locate them rather than just sending the notices to the same address over and over again?”
“My office does not get involved in the mailings from FPS,” said McVay.
McVay and the district’s previous fire marshall had been on his property and never said anything about the need to clear brush, said Leap.
“I’ve had an ongoing building permit on this property for years for two different structures that are on the property,” he said.
Leap believed he had good clearance on his property.
“You look at my property compared to every other parcel that surrounds me, I have incredible clearance on our parcel, and at the time I thought I had great clearance,” he said. “…I didn’t know that I was even out of compliance, but, after doing the research, I have found that, yeah, I was, so I went ahead and did more.”
Leap said he supports a weed abatement ordinance, but he was shocked at what he considers “the inaccuracy and gross exaggeration of the cost of the abatement.”
After Leap’s testimony and responses to a series of questions from Kesinger, Krysak said, “You know that old saying (in) the movie, ‘you had me after hello?’ Well, you had me after ‘notice.’ … My biggest concern is that there was no actual notice. I don’t believe in constructive notice as opposed to actual notice in this type of circumstance, but that’s just me.”
Constructive notice is a legal term that provides for a substitute for actual notice.
On June 24, 2008, the RMWD Board authorized collection of $49,468 of delinquent weed abatement charges. Among the 19 properties on the list was $16,943 for the Leaps. At that meeting, Wilsman asked if the Ramona Fire Department could handle weed abatement. He asked that a future agenda topic be brought to the board to discuss the topic.
“I repeat that request now, that we hear from the fire department the options that this district has to eliminate this whole thing, this whole operation, this whole relationship, and I hope that it’s on the record now that I’m repeating it,” Wilsman said at the Nov. 25 meeting.
- Water board waives fire rules in disasters
- 2 votes separate Hager, Boetcher for water district’s Division 5 board seat
- Open meeting law and 1st amendment
- Voters unseat 5 on planning group and 2 on water board
- Property owners have until Dec. 1 to appeal assessment
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