From MyDesert.com, Marcel Honoré, 18 Jul 2011.
Residents of a Thermal mobile home park who spent years dealing with hazardous amounts of arsenic in their water testified Monday that they were forced to pay exorbitant rates for that water or face eviction.
During the special state hearing in Indio — the result of a complaint filed in 2009 to the California Public Utilities Commission — residents of the low-income Sunbird community said their bills skyrocketed when the park instituted a tier system, including one man whose monthly bill was $1,235.
“We used the same amount of water every month and there isn’t really any change in the water usage,” Rosa Maria Montellano testified before Administrative Law Judge Gary Weatherford, who will recommend to the utility commission whether to change the rates.
Her family of seven at one point saw its water bill spike from $13 to about $300 from one month to the next, she testified.
Lucas Hernandez, a 92-year- old former park resident and retired farmworker, saw his monthly water bills jump from about $14 to nearly $600 in 2006, according to the complaint.
Hernandez, who could not testify Monday due to illness, paid the full bill but the costs forced him to move in with family in Coachella, according to his attorneys.
Julianna Strong, attorney for Sunbird’s owner, James Martin, said the park first launched a tiered system in 2002 to curb excessive water use by some residents that strained Sunbird’s septic system, resulting in expensive maintenance and repair. The tiers were revamped in 2006.
During a break in the testimony, Martin said Sunbird loses money on its water and septic operations. He declined to comment on the park’s overall profit, since it didn’t have to do with the complaint.
Martin said some Sunbird tenants have been evicted since 2006 for failure to pay what they owe, but added they weren’t evicted specifically due to water bills because Sunbird residents are charged a lump sum for their total rent and utilities.
For the tenant who had a $1,235 monthly water bill, park management agreed to trim it in half, testified Daisy Valencia, a Sunbird manager.
An estimated 500 to 600 people live in Sunbird, a community of 84 units hidden among date palm groves just off Harrison Street that houses farm and service-sector families.
Several Sunbird residents traveled to Sacramento in 2010 to testify before state lawmakers.
The group convinced the California Public Utilities Commission to stop Sunbird from charging the top two tiers of water usage, pending a resolution to the rate dispute.
Those two top tiers were 10 times the comparable rates charged by the Coachella Valley Water District, according to California Rural Legal Assistance, which is representing the Sunbird residents.
On Monday, Strong said the rates charged do not violate state law and during cross-testimony she challenged residents’ assertions that the charges for water were arbitrary and unfair.
At the highest of its four tiers, Sunbird charges $40 per 100 cubic feet of water, if a customer uses 1,600 cubic feet or more.
At the tier below that, it’s $20 per 100 cubic feet of water if customers use between 1,200 to 1,500 cubic feet.
Many residents say they started buying bottled water to drink, cook and clean with in addition to paying their regular water bills.
Several years ago, the park’s on-site well tested for hazardous levels of naturally occurring arsenic, which public health experts say causes serious health problems if ingested over years.
Earlier this year, the park installed a central filter system to remove the high arsenic levels from the water. It provides the residents clean water, but they have to go retrieve it.
Despite those measures, some residents say they’re still scared to use the water.
“The water is not good, and my children can’t drink it,” Sunbird resident Maria Palma testified Monday.
Testimony is expected to continue today. It’s not clear when Weatherford will make his recommendation.