Customers of the Cherokee Metropolitan District are getting hit with an 87-percent increase in their water rate and a 10-percent hike in wastewater bills.
Not surprisingly, many of the district’s 18,000 customers are feeling significant sticker shock.
“I’m not real happy with them right now,” said Mary Hernandez, a 30-year-plus Cimarron Hills resident.
No other water district in Colorado has boosted rates as much. The Cherokee increase for 2010 follows on the heels of a 35 percent hike in 2009.
For a household using five units of water a month, water bills will climb from $10.35 to $19.35. The bigger users, say a household using 50 units a month, will see their bill climb from $194.40 to $363.30.
“A lot of us are retired and are on a limited income out here. I won’t be putting in any bedding plants or be able to have my pots of petunias,” she said, noting that her latest water bill was $62, which reflected just a half-month under the increase.
“When I water the lawn in the summer, it will probably go to $150,” she said. “What will this do to our community?”
Hernandez’s neighbor, Jan Olson, is so worried about the future of her neighborhood that she plans to run for a position on the Cherokee board in May.
“A lot of people are complaining, and their bills don’t even reflect a full billing cycle yet. February’s statements were just through the 15th or 16th. Next month we’ll see the whole amount,” she said.
One of her big concerns is what higher rates might do to drive away potential home buyers.
The district serves a 4,000-acre enclave stretching from Powers Boulevard on the west to Barnes Road on the north, Highway 24 on the south and as far east as Meridian Hills and Falcon. Its water has come from various other districts and is piped in by the Colorado Springs Utilities. It also had at one point relied on wells in the Upper Black Squirrel Basin, control of which is in constant dispute.
Cherokee officials attribute the new, higher rates to what the district is now paying Colorado Springs Utilities, as well as to court rulings that have cut the district’s water rights by 40 percent.
Cherokee recently began buying all of its water from CSU. It was compelled to do so after the utility stopped allowing Cherokee to use CSU’s infrastructure to pipe water bought from other utilities.
Rates could have gone even higher.
CSU spokesman David Grossman said an agreement that went into effect in January between CSU and Cherokee, in place through 2012, reflects a 187-percent increase in Cherokee’s cost of water.
“This is not a situation of the utility company trying to take advantage of anybody,” Grossman said, adding that CSU is required by city code to charge outside customers 1.5 times — or 150 percent — of the rate paid by in-city customers.
But the cost of city water is just one contributor to the rate increase.
Under a series of court rulings, Cherokee, which at one point was able to tap into 14 wells in the Upper Black Squirrel Basin, was forced to shut down those operations.
“I had about three good months on the job before that ruling came down,” said Kip Petersen, Cherokee general manager. “We’ve been trying to find ways to solve our water shortage ever since.”
Colorado Springs, unlike Denver or Pueblo, has no rivers flowing through it. More than 80 percent of the metropolitan area’s water must be imported from watersheds outside Leadville or from the Pikes Peak watershed.
The problem of securing water for a high desert plateau, dependent otherwise on rainwater or underground water basins like the Upper Black Squirrel or the Denver Basin, plagues cities throughout the state.
“Wow,” Colorado Water Commission secretary Rick Nielsen said in reaction to Cherokee’s rate hikes.
Nielsen, who also serves as a board member of a water district in the Denver area, said it’s uncommon to see increases that high.
“We see an (rate) adjustment about every year, but we try to keep increases in the single digits. Of course we don’t have the same water shortages you have at Cherokee. I’ve heard of one district where rates were going up 10 percent — and another for 50 percent, but that’s very rare,” he said.
Petersen, who has been on the job since January 2007, said Cherokee has tried to find ways to minimize rate pain.
The utility has even considered applying for city annexation, which would enable its residential and 400 commercial users to use city water.
“The trouble is we’ve been designated by the city as ‘undesirable,’ Petersen said, noting that the district has attracted little retail activity that would generate sales tax. “Ours is a residential tax base. Even if we were annexed, our rates wouldn’t go down that much, but we’d see a substantial property tax increase.”
Schriever Air Force Base, which uses from 680,000 to 920,000 cubic feet of water a month, also gets its water from the Cherokee Metropolitan District. Air Force officials say the installation has its own negotiated contract with the water and wastewater service supplier and hasn’t been hit by the rate hike — yet.
“At this time, we have heard there is a rate increase which will affect us, but until we get the official request from Cherokee with the supporting documentation for an increase, we are not in negotiations,” base officials said in a statement.
Meanwhile, thousands of homeowners who live in the district face years of water rate increases without much recourse.
The Utilities Program Advisory Committee, established by CSU’s governing board, the Colorado Springs City Council, has begun studying the possibility of selling access to water to out-of-city customers such as Cherokee Metro District. But it will be at least five to 10 years before a long-awaited pipeline connecting Pueblo and El Paso counties will be up and running.