Saturday, January 31, 2015 • 09:37

VC Municipal Water District keeps up with the times

Thad Klimas, VCMWD water systems supervisor, mans the operating systems console at the district's mission control. photo by Rene Sanchez / Valley Roadrunner.
January 29, 2015
Water, water needed everywhere and it's up to Gary Arant, general manager of the Valley Center Metropolitan Water District (VCMWD), to get that water to the people, local businesses, and farms.

"We're just the plumber," Arant said. "We're just here to serve. We have a huge water system with 300 miles of pipelines and four reservoirs. We have to maintain a safe and reliable water system."

Operating costs are pretty well fixed for the district, but it faces challenges above and beyond actual water acquisition and distribution costs.

It's all about the pipes, baby

From $2 million to $4 million annually is thrown at the capital replacement bucket annually to keep the water and wastewater for treatment flowing. About $3 million is in a reserve fund for emergencies.

"We've got pipe from the mid-1950s," Arant said. "The big challenge is maintaining and replacing pipes and facilities without bankrupting our customers. You can't run a municipal water district on a shoestring. Not fixing pipes is not an option."

The budget is $47.8 million. About 20 percent to 25 percent goes to personnel and management costs while the remaining money goes toward water acquisition and SDG&E energy to power pumps and systems. All water is piped in from Riverside County aqueducts by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Costs have been rising, but not in a linear fashion, according to Arant. However, technological advances, a move toward renewable solar energy projects saving $2 million in power costs at pumping stations at places like Lake Turner have kept the district from exploding costs, which, obviously, have to be paid for by someone, namely customers.

Serving Valley Center

VCMWD serves 10,000 accounts, including 1,150 farms – down from 1,800 ag. accounts a decade ago – with an estimated 25,000 people. Due to improved technology and efficiency, the district has downsized from a high of 83 employees in 2007 to 59 employees today. Part of personnel cuts came in the form of meter readers, an endangered species, as the district now can monitor accounts remotely.

Overall, Valley Center residents, including agricultural users who pay the same flat rate as families – unusual for many water districts where ag. users get special volume discounts. Those rates will remain in place, according to Arant. About two-thirds of district water use is by agricultural concerns.

District water consumers, i.e. everybody, have been good about cutting use, but at a certain point, there's only so much people can do when they've cut use to a bare minimum. Overall, water use has been cut three percent in the last year.

Local water conservation always has been good with customers responding well to drought scenarios in the early 1990s and late 2000 as well as these days. Water demand has been cut in half since the mid-2000's, with demand hardening, Arant said. "When people conserve, then you ask them to conserve more," he added, "it gets harder to cut."

While the district takes no position on area development, the fact is development has been good for the district in the past decade. With agricultural production and use falling rapidly, new developments increase customer base and spread out costs for the district.

When it rains, it pours

Also good in a period of drought were recent rains although the last few weeks have turned back to dry.

"The recent rain has been helpful, but we're still a long way from being out of the woods," said Arant, 64. "At his very hands-on VCMWD office last week, surrounded by baseball memorabilia and everything water, including massive district documents and plans.

"We need lots of heavy rain in the next few months ahead to solve the problem that has been three years in the making," Arant said.

Three years ago, the district joined nearby Rainbow, Fallbrook and Yuima districts in exploring a merge. Officials believed sharing staff and maximizing distribution systems would create a better, cost-saving business model.

Rainbow and Fallbrook water officials, contrary to Rodney King's famous "can't we all get along" plea, couldn't. Valley Center had "no position, we're friends with both of them," Arant said with a laugh, but the dispute derailed any hopes of a merger last December.

Overall, the 25 years under Arant's water district leadership have "been an interesting period with quite a lot of transition," Arant said, as the district has transformed from strictly agricultural in focus to a diverse, mixed use base with more residential housing.

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