Drought

By Meghann N. Cuniff / Staff Writer
June 11, 2015 – Updated 10:22 p.m.

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Tiered pricing might not be dead as a tool to encourage water conservation.

California’s top lawyers and water officials are trying to stop an April ruling against San Juan Capistrano’s tiered-rate water pricing system from becoming a precedent that would end the strategy statewide.

On June 5, the Attorney General’s Office wrote to the California Supreme Court, asking it to reverse publication of the 4th District Court of Appeal’s ruling that San Juan Capistrano’s water district violated the state Constitution because it wasn’t charging rates based solely on the water district’s costs.

Water officials and lawyers have interpreted the ruling to mean that water districts can’t set rates in a way to discourage people from using too much water.

By law, depublishing the 4th District’s ruling would make it applicable only to San Juan Capistrano’s water district, and it could not be used as a legal precedent in other jurisdictions.

If the Supreme Court rules in the state’s favor, water agencies that used tiered rates also might not be vulnerable to legal challenges based on the San Juan Capistrano decision.

Officials from several water agencies in Orange County said Thursday they hadn’t yet heard of the state’s filing and declined to comment.

But in its letter, which was written on behalf of the California Water Resources Control Board, the Attorney General’s Office made it clear it would like tiered pricing be seen as a legal conservation tool.

The 4th District’s ruling against San Juan Capistrano’s tiered water rates contains “unnecessary and overbroad language” that could be misused in litigation, the attorney general wrote, adding that the ruling “could have an immediate chilling effect on urgently needed water conservation efforts.”

The ruling against San Juan Capistrano was cited last month in a lawsuit in Marin County over tiered water rates there. And water agencies statewide have been seeking legal guidance to make sure their pricing strategies aren’t vulnerable to lawsuits.

The appellate ruling was issued about the same time Gov. Jerry Brown asked all municipalities to consider penalties for heavy water users.

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