El Pasoans will receive higher water bills beginning in March: here’s why
El Pasoans will see higher water bills this year and climate change is partly to blame.
Between historic flooding, a shrinking Rio Grande and the catastrophic 2021 winter storm, utility officials said they must invest in emergency preparedness and construction by raising rates.
The Public Service Board, El Paso Water’s oversight board, approved the utility’s request to raise water rates and the stormwater fee by 9% each and sewer rates 13% by a 6-1 vote Wednesday.
Residential customers’ monthly utility bills will increase by an average of $6.37 under these new rates, which take effect March 1.
The average residential water bill will be $66.99 a month, according to utility estimates. Including fixed city charges — recycling, trash collection, and stormwater and franchise fees — the total average residential utility bill will be $119.54 a month.
The average monthly commercial bill will be $100.46.
This is the seventh consecutive year of water and sewer rate increases, and the second consecutive year of stormwater hikes.
The rate increases are part of El Paso Water’s $876.7 million overall budget for fiscal year 2022, which the PSB also approved Wednesday. That’s an increase of more than $300 million, or 72%, from this year’s $508.3 million budget.
El Paso Water CEO John Balliew said combined pressure from the community and El Paso City Council to complete stormwater projects and update crumbling infrastructure, paired with the need to increase water supplies, will mean big spending for the utility over the next decade.
“We don’t want humongous failures in the sewer system to occur,” Balliew said. “We have to be more proactive, and invest in (resiliency).”
The stormwater and sewer budget for next fiscal year is nearly $785 million — up 70% from this year — largely driven by construction and vehicle replacement costs. Proposed construction projects include pipeline replacements, additional wells and treatment facility upgrades.
Balliew said the utility aims to complete $700 million in stormwater infrastructure projects in the next decade rather than over the next 20 years, as initially planned. That would raise drastically stormwater rates, up to an estimated $12 monthly in 2032 from the current $4.92.
The board’s adoption of this fiscal year’s budget does not bind future boards to that spending plan, Balliew said.
Mayor Oscar Leeser was the only PSB member who voted against the water and sewer fee increases, saying they would burden El Pasoans.
“I’m not going to be able to support it because I believe it’s a big jump for the community,” Leeser said. “It’s not only that they have wastewater; they’ve got electric bills, they’ve got taxes, they’ve got everything that comes out of the same wallet.”
But the majority of the board disagreed.
Board member Ivonne Santiago said infrastructure investments are necessary if the city wants to continue to grow, pointing to the Frontera force main break in August and the resulting months-long spill as an example not to follow.
“We had this situation of aging infrastructure, and we cannot afford that ever again,” Santiago said.
Though the PSB is raising the monthly stormwater fee by 41 cents, the new fee is only 21 cents higher than what it was when first introduced in 2008, she noted.
Balliew said the utility had previously reduced that fee to accommodate pushback against the unpopular, new fee.
“We do recognize that we are playing catch-up at this point, because we have been mindful for many years in the past, trying to keep rates low,” Balliew said.
As part of the fiscal year 2022 budget, El Paso Water earmarked $100 million to ensure more reliable water supplies during extreme weather emergencies, such as generators, fuel storage and wells. The Texas Legislature mandated that water utilities across the state make upgrades after last year’s deadly February storm knocked out power and water for millions across Texas.
Board Chair Kristina Mena said the storm exacerbated hardship for Texans during the pandemic, and prevention of future disasters is worth the high costs.
“It’s hard to strategically plan for the unexpected, but we have to,” Mena said. “We are seeing utilities across the country facing these infrastructure challenges right now, a lot of it due, frankly, to unexpected, severe weather.”
Cover photo: Construction on a stormwater system project proceeds at the intersection of Sam Snead Drive and Lee Trevino Drive in East El Paso in July 2021. El Paso Water customers will see a rate increase to pay for such projects. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)