GrokSurf's San Diego

Local observations on water, environment, technology, law & politics

The water subsidy for golf courses ‘scandal’

Posted by George J Janczyn on April 17, 2010

Balboa Park Golf Course

Balboa Park Golf Course is not yet using reclaimed water

How your water rates subsidize golf courses” is the headline in a recent Voice of San Diego article by Rob Davis that will probably stir up some indignation around town. The article says that “475 businesses, homeowners associations, golf courses and public agencies” get a 78% discount on reclaimed water which is subsidized by regular water users. The article cites Michael Shames, executive director of UCAN, who suggests that discounted prices for reclaimed water users may be illegal, and that “City Councilwoman Donna Frye called it “out-of-whack” and promised to hold a public hearing on it.” In a subsequent PBS Editors Roundtable discussion, Voice of San Diego executive editor Andrew Donohue said a normal discount for reclaimed water should be only 10% and that the City had been keeping the subsidy for industrial use a secret.

I really don’t see a scandal here.

North City Water Reclamation Plant

First, the discount isn’t a secret (although details on its financial impact may be hard to obtain). The City’s Guaranteed Water for Industry Program is where the discounted water has been publicly documented [the discount is also documented here]. Initially the discount was only for businesses certified under the program, but presently the $0.80 per HCF price (which they wrote was a 50% discount) applies to all purchasers of reclaimed water (with the exception of Poway which is charged more because it didn’t pay certain capacity fees). [There is no discount for the fixed base fee, however. All water users pay the same base fee.]

Second, the suggestion that one group is subsidizing another group sidesteps the fact that it’s looking at two classes of water–it’s not one group of potable users subsidizing another group of potable users. It may be true, though, that if reclaimed water is being sold at a loss the entire Water Department budget has to absorb that loss [or possibly the Wastewater Department in which case the sewer fee would be the water customer revenue source supporting the recycled water sales].

Third, to use reclaimed water requires an expensive investment in purple pipe infrastructure and plumbing, so a discount in the water price certainly makes that decision by potential new customers a little easier.

Ocean outfall at Point Loma

Last, as things stand, San Diego’s water reclamation plants remain unable to sell all the water they can treat. The Voice’s article briefly mentions the 2001 City Council decision to discount the water in order to attract buyers, but the lack of buyers is still a very important fact to consider. A large amount of usable reclaimed water they can’t sell, even today, is pumped to the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant and disposed of through the ocean outfall into the Pacific. Considering the substantial infrastructure expense and the amount of treated water going to waste, it only makes sense that large water consumers like golf courses should be targeted first as customers for reclaimed water. Without a discount for the reclaimed water, businesses have less incentive to stop using potable drinking water for their irrigation and industrial needs. [Consider, too, that the City is under an EPA mandate to maximize the reuse of the water treated at this plant]. Do we really prefer to continue sending precious potable water to golf courses and industry while treating reclaimed water to usable standards and then dumping it in the ocean?

Yes, we need to reexamine the discounted price for reclaimed water; that price probably should at least be adjusted for inflation and operating costs. And in fact, the Water Department is currently performing a Recycled Water Pricing Study which is due sometime this year.

As for additional outlets for surplus reclaimed water, I completely support the Indirect Potable Reuse Study that is looking at advanced purification of reclaimed water to bring it to a potable drinking water standard. That project envisions a 1 million gallon per day operation during the study, and if deemed feasible and if approved by the Mayor and Council, a full-scale IPR/Reservoir Augmentation project with a plant adjacent to the North City Water Reclamation Plant and a pipeline to San Vicente Reservoir, would generate approximately 16 MGD. But convincing the population to agree to recycled drinking water isn’t made easier when the media keeps calling it “toilet to tap.” The Voice’s “…use its sewage to boost drinking water supplies” is just as bad. Surely they can do better than that. A good substitute for the awkward phrase “indirect potable reuse” that I’ve seen used is “repurified water.”

So, we still need to find a way to stop throwing recycled water away — we need to find new buyers for that water. I say we should definitely make a realistic adjustment to the discount for reclaimed water, but not eliminate it. In the long term reclaimed water needs to make a big difference in the availability and reliability of drinking water supplies for San Diego and we should support incentives to increase its use.

Apr 20, 2010: The Voice continues to press its complaint with The unanswered golf course subsidy question: “The city knows the answers to those questions — it just isn’t sharing.”

Looking at the Recycled Water Cost Study draft report (the ‘confidential city study‘ that the article refers to), I see that it recommends the recycled water rate to significantly increase from the present $0.80 per HCF to $1.46 in 2010, $2.03 in 2011, and $2.66 in 2012. The report also states that the recycled rate increases are expected to eventually allow the potable water system to recover all contributions it is making to support the recycled system discount.


2 Responses to “The water subsidy for golf courses ‘scandal’”

  1. luke said

    People should become aware that our imported water is already down river of sewage treatment plants.
    How do you think the cost of water be determined?

  2. lostlandscape said

    Taking the reclaimed water the final distance to a potable state seems like it’d be a way more sensible thing to do than to look at desal up at the Encina facility. Colorado River water, local recyled water, desalinated seawater–it’s all “toilet to tap.” (Where do you think marine animals go to use the facilities? Not to mention that the ocean is where our own treated sewage gets pumped…) We need to get over the term and drink up–or move somewhere that’s not so overpopulated for the carrying capacity of the environment.

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