Retail Water Rates and Community Gardens in Los Angeles

Welcome back to On Food Law! We are excited to be back from our summer break and can’t wait to see what the rest of 2020 will bring. (Kidding.)

We have some exciting news – Laura Yraceburu Dall’s (UCLA Law ’20) article on the effect of Proposition 218 on retail water rates for community gardens in Los Angeles, which won the 2020 California Water Law Writing Prize co-sponsored by the California Water Law Symposium Board of Directors and the University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law, has been published in the California Water Law Journal.

Laura, who was deeply involved with the Resnick Center during her time at UCLA Law, writes that she came to the topic in her Food Law & Policy Clinic:

“As a part of Professor Korn’s Food Law and Policy Clinic, a representative of the Los Angeles Food and Policy Council came to discuss her advocacy and mentioned that water rates for community gardens were increasing by nearly three hundred percent, threatening the existence of gardens to the detriment of low-income community members. I began researching outside of class and came to realize that there was no clear understanding of why the rates were increasing so dramatically. I knew that I had to write about it.”
She then wrote the paper for her water law course, and submitted it for the 2020 CA Water Law Writing Prize.
Here is a synopsis of the paper:

Community gardens in Los Angeles County have seen water rates increase from a flat rate of $1.41 per hundred cubic feet (HCF) in March 2016 to $2.095/HCF plus variable adjustments in July 2019 – a 289 percent increase.[1] As a result, some community gardens have been forced to quadruple their member gardeners’ monthly dues to cover the increasing cost of water.[2] In three years, this increase in the price of water has made gardening significantly more expensive and has priced out low-income, largely immigrant community members[3] who rely on these gardens to supplement their diets with fresh produce. Community gardens across Los Angeles now face the choice of either having their membership change from subsisters who rely on the gardens for dietary needs to hobby gardeners who can pay more to fund the gardens or, alternatively, closing their operations.  Either result increases food insecurity for the most vulnerable members of the gardens’ communities.

California has a long history of resisting tax increases through voter-approved propositions, known in short-hand as the California Tax Revolt. This effort has generally made it more challenging for cities and utilities to raise needed revenue for local services and programs, including water service,[4] but a deeper problem exists than a shortage of funds. Proposition 218, which amended the California Constitution, imposes substantive and procedural requirements on local agencies by limiting property-related fees, including retail water rates.[5]  Proposition 218’s shifting of rate setting authority to the electorate has paradoxically contributed to a significant water rate increase for Los Angeles’ community gardens.  While the goal of the Tax Revolt was to keep taxes and rates low, certain ratepayers have not received such benefits and in fact have experienced disproportionate rate increases.

This paper begins with an overview of community gardens and the history of the California Tax Revolt, primarily focusing on Propositions 13 and 218.[6]  Next, this paper will evaluate Proposition 218’s consequences for community gardens in the Los Angeles area. An analysis of how Proposition 218 was sold to voters will follow. A discussion of practical steps towards reform will precede the conclusion.[7]

 

This important work can be found here.

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