The Pacheco Reservoir is pictured in this undated file image. Santa Clara Valley Water District customers will see their rates rise 9.1 percent next fiscal year as Northern California faces what are expected to be extreme drought conditions. (Photo courtesy of Santa Clara County Valley Water District via San Jose Spotlight)

Water rates in Santa Clara County are increasing as the county faces looming threats of drought.

This past week, the Santa Clara Valley Water District board of directors unanimously approved a 9.1 percent rate increase for the 2022 fiscal year.

Starting this July 1 until June 30, 2022, the average county resident will pay an additional $4.30 to $4.82 per month in their water bill.

Board chair Tony Estremera said the increases will help pay for additional emergency water needed to meet the demand of residents and keep groundwater at healthy levels.

“It will also allow our community to prepare for droughts and other natural disasters by bolstering our water conservation programs, expanding the use of recycled water and starting work on the Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit Project, which will protect public safety and increase water storage capacity in the county,” Estremera said.

The rate increase will also be used to fund an environmental impact report for the $2.5 billion Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project — an aspect that has been met with opposition from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo and environmental group the Sierra Club.

The expansion project would increase the reservoir’s operational capacity from 5,500 acre-feet to up to 140,000 acre-feet, allowing the county to store more of its water locally.

Currently, the county buys 50 percent of its water supply and a lot of it is stored in water banks farther away.

The water travels through levees and pipes to get to the county, but in the case of a serious drought, vice chair Gary Kremen said the county may not be able to access that water.

“It’s kind of like a bank account, where when you need it, you can’t get it out, which is unfortunate that it doesn’t work in critically dry years,” Kremen said.

Should other projects be considered?

But to Liccardo, spending $2.5 billion on a project that would not increase water supply is not a smart investment.

Last week, Liccardo encouraged the board to look at other conservation or other water supply increase projects to fund instead.

At the May 11 meeting, resident Greg Stein asked board members why they were not considering such projects instead of the reservoir expansion.

Kremen responded that the board is looking at all the options.

“(That’s why) we got to get to this environmental impact report before we make our decisions, because the environmental impact report has alternatives,” Kremen said.

The cost of the environmental report is about 28 cents per month for the average household, Estremera said.

Even without the proposed Pacheco Reservoir Expansion Project, water rates would still increase by 8.5 percent to fund additional water purchases, the Anderson Dam Seismic Retrofit Project and other conservation and sustainability programs.

At the meeting, the board also voted to develop a one-year low-income residential water rate assistance program that will help low-income county households pay their water bills during the pandemic.