Residents of the quaint Santa Catalina Island community of Avalon say it was bad enough that Southern California Edison Co. has increased their water rates by 300% over the last five years.

Now, the utility wants to raise them an additional 83% in order to pay for infrastructure improvements that could make its aging utility here more attractive to prospective buyers.

The proposal, if approved by the California Public Utilities Commission, will hike average bills of $25.43 per 100 cubic feet of water to $55.67 — roughly nine times higher than is paid in Los Angeles.

Edison says the rate hike is needed to recover $19 million spent on improvements at the utility, which it has valued at $35 million.

In shock, the island’s 1,900 ratepayers have united under the auspices of a consortium of business owners, nonprofits, youth camps, homeowners associations and the city of Avalon to fight the increases they fear would devastate the tourist town that has seen a steady decline in visitors.

They say that most of Edison’s expenditures have been exorbitant, unnecessary and a breach of the competitive bid process on the island where a sustainable, reasonably priced supply of water is critical to residents, property owners and development.

“Catalina cannot afford the water now,” said Norris J. Bishton, president and representative of the town’s Hamilton Cove Homeowners Assn. “What will happen if the SCE is successful in doubling current rates?”

“It’s crazy,” agreed Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wayne Griffin. “Sky-high utility costs will only make it harder to do business” in this harbor town of scalloped beaches, Victorian cottages and sleek sailboats where the rates would be passed on to residents and tourists.

Now, the PUC is preparing to choose between Edison’s proposal and an alternative that would — with little notice and on a one-time-only basis — shift about $8 million of increased costs in Edison’s rate base to its electric ratepayers on the mainland.

The compromise, which would result in no increase in island water rates, was reviewed and critiqued by Administrative Law Judge Robert Barnett. “There is a compelling need for rate relief on Catalina Island,” Barnett said, and the compromise proposal would “have a minimal impact on SCE’s 4.8 million electric ratepayers.”

Barnett is critical of Edison’s local expenditures. The utility spend $2.6 million on improvements from 1985 to 2000, but over the next decade, improvements cost $18.8 million.

“Such spending is either as a result of neglect of the system in prior years or an attempt to make the utility more salable, or both,” Barnett said.

Edison acquired the island’s water, gas and electric utility in 1962. Maintaining the water system has been a costly and time-consuming problem ever since.

In an interview, Akbar Jazayeri, Southern California Edison’s vice president of operations, said “the high cost of doing business on Catalina” was responsible for the increases.

“The island has very little water, so desalination of ocean water is required — an expensive process,” Jazayeri said. “We barge materials to the island. We’ve made seismic improvements at dams and reservoirs, replaced a pump house, repaired infrastructure damaged by fire and installed automated control systems — all this, for 2,000 customers.”

The island’s existing water system is a complex system of old pumps, tanks and miles of 10-inch pipelines crisscrossing rugged canyon lands between the reservoirs, wells and water hookups on the 75-square-mile island, about 22 miles from San Pedro.

Selling it won’t be easy. Over the last two years, at least three prospective buyers have looked it over and declined.

In the meantime, many of the utility’s largest customers are investing in water-reduction strategies.

The historic Emerald Bay camp operated by the Boy Scouts of America‘s Western Los Angeles County Council had been consuming more than 2.5 million gallons of water per year worth about $130,000 at current rates.

Two years ago, however, with the help of sustainability experts from Boulder, Colo.-based UHG Consulting, the camp spent $58,000 on a comprehensive plan that included plumbing repairs, fixture upgrades, installation of smart meters and high-profile conservation programs. They include signs featuring “fun water facts” posted over every sink, spigot and toilet on the 50-acre camp. A sign pinned on the wall above an outdoor toilet facility advised: “Only 2% of earth’s water supply is fresh; let’s not waste it.”

“Overall, we decreased water use by 30% and saw a return on our investment within one year,” said Ashley Prososki, the camp’s nature and ecology director. “Water conservation education has become part of the camp culture, along with target shooting, scuba diving, rowing and sailing.”