During the Idyllwild Water District’s workshop at Silver Pines Inn last week, long-time resident Marge Muir (left) describes the history of the San Jacinto Mountains Water Agency, while IWD Director Geoffrey Caine listens closely. The meeting’s purpose was to obtain the views of the district’s customers on its direction and to help create a new vision for its future. Photo by JP Crumrine

About a dozen people attended the Idyllwild Water District’s Special Workshop Wednesday. The board called the workshop in an effort to learn more about the community’s assessment of the district and its desire for the future.

Beginning the meeting, President Dr. Charles Schelly invited feedback from the public: “The purpose is to obtain community input on anything and everything in Idyllwild Water. How can we improve? And what are we doing well?”

Afterwards, he opined, “I was pleased that we received new input from some individuals that we haven’t heard from before. Their ideas and suggestions help us have a broader perspective of the issues that are important to our water district.”

The first comment recommended a return to the former billing structure for water. Idyllwild customers paid a base rate, but did not pay for water consumed until they exceeded 3,740 gallons. As of September 2014, the district lowered the volume of water for which no usage charge would be applied to 1,870 gallons.

He argued that by increasing the amount of water residents could use without charge, IWD would be able to sell more total water.

More importantly, since he has to pay directly for greater water usage, it has constrained the amount of water he and has family can use for their yard planting. “We can’t water the yard much because it costs too much.”

Conservation was the reason for lowering the amount of water before a usage charge was applied. Since the lower amount became policy, IWD’s usage in September 2014 was 8.9-million gallons. Two years later, in year five of the drought, usage was 7.3-million gallons, almost 20 percent less.

For the 12 months following September 2014, production was 6.4 million less than the 12 months before September 2014.

This was not the only comment about rates. Representing Idyllwild Arts Academy, Buzz Holmes implored the board to develop a rate structure that was easier for the whole community to understand.

“The kind of things we’d like to see from the board is stopping the arbitrary fee structure, for example the use of EDUs [equivalent dwelling units], so we can really understand our obligation.”

Of course, the age-old issue of consolidating the three Hill water districts — Fern Valley, Idyllwild and Pine Cove — was broached. Holmes encouraged the board to “reach across and work with the other districts. It’s a mistake to embrace provincialism as our community grows.”

Marge Muir, a local real estate agent, reminded the group that for many years, a Hill-wide water agency existed. It was only disbanded in December 2013. It had functioned, not without controversy, she said, since its creation June 1, 1976. Its last official meeting occurred March 3, 2010.

Sue Nash and husband Tom Paulek encouraged the board to improve its efforts to conduct business more transparently. They believe that approval of the memorandum of understanding between IWD and the Idyllwild Brewpub, and the permit issued in February were done without adequate public involvement and limited transparency.

She stressed that the brewery should only flush treated water into the waste-water system.

“It’s very important to involve the public in these water decisions,” Paulek said. “I ask the board to work at getting people involved. This [workshop] is a good first step.”

Preparing an environmental study, pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act, for most decisions, even when a negative determination is merited, would be the appropriate process to incorporate public involvement, Paulek recommended.

In contrast, Laura Sherman, director of IAA Facilities Management, applauded the board and said, “There has been a lot of changes in the board. From my experience with the school for years, we have never had better relationships and communication. We’re very encouraged.”

Reba Coulter asked the board to consider putting financials online. Five years of budgets and financial statements are available at www.idyllwildwater.net/forms-and-reports/financials/. She also thought that the fee to pay a bill online was too steep.