$1,500 a month for water? Could happen in Kern Co. community

$1,500 a month for water? Could happen in Kern Co. community »Play Video
KEENE, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Imagine a whole month's paycheck going toward a water bill. That's what Keene-area residents are facing in a potential water rate hike.

"The Keene Water System wants to raise its rates to a new level, which I would say is well beyond what any normal person could afford," said Keene resident Erik Jacobs. "Myself, I calculated what my rates would be, and it would be approximately $1,500 per month."

Eyewitness News checked into that rate, and it’s closer to $1,400 per month – still a drastic jump from what Jacobs is paying now, which is around $300 per month.

Keene Water System, which is owned by Union Pacific Railroad Co., is the only public water supplier in the rural mountainous area east of Bakersfield. The system is proposing a water rate hike at a whopping 291 percent.

Neighbors who spoke with Eyewitness News said they're already hurting from the last water rate hike from 2006. The current proposal has many neighbors scared, and one man said anonymously that he canceled his water and is now getting his supply from the creek in Keene.

The average U.S. water bill is around $50 a month. Right now, in Keene, the customers Eyewitness News talked to said they're already paying around $250 a month.

"They're using the law, which says they're entitled to profit, to jack up the rates so high that no one could possibly afford them,” said Jacobs.

Union Pacific said it's not trying to make a profit. The government in 2010 required Union Pacific to replace the water supply in order to meet the reliability, supply and water quality requirements applicable to water utilities. Union Pacific decided the most cost-efficient way to supply water was to haul water into Keene from Tehachapi.

" ... Union Pacific has borne the entire cost of hauling the water, and we are now seeking to recover the cost of this water through a PUC rate adjustment on a going-forward basis. This rate increase is being sought only to cover the costs of operating the system. Union Pacific does not make a profit operating this system," said Aaron Hunt, a spokesman for Union Pacific, in an email.

Still, neighbors in Keene want a compromise.

"They certainly should compensate the people and come see the people they're hurting," said Jacobs.

The water rate increase proposal is now being considered by the California Public Utilities Commission, which regulates water. Eyewitness News reached out to the commission, but officials could only say that the proposal is being reviewed.