GrokSurf's San Diego

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

Committee sends water use restrictions and a rate increase request to the San Diego City Council

Posted by George J Janczyn on September 9, 2010

A weakened water use ordinance and a request for a rate increase were among the items forwarded to the City Council yesterday by the Committee on Natural Resources and Culture (click here for agenda and supporting documentation). Councilmembers Donna Frye, Sherri Lightner, and Carl DeMaio were in attendance; Marti Emerald was absent.

Water Use Restrictions

When Councilmember Donna Frye originally proposed that the temporary Drought Response Level 2 measures imposed in June 2009 be made permanent, the idea was to acknowledge the increasingly uncertain reliability of imported Colorado River water due to drought, climate change, and excessive use as well as new challenges in obtaining water from the California Delta via the State Water Project. It was to send a message encouraging city residents to make a lifestyle of using water more conservatively, in accord with living in an arid region where reserves are limited and supply lines are extremely vulnerable to disruption or catastrophic cutoff.

For months Ms. Frye conducted speaking tours and stakeholder meetings to explain why those limitations should remain in place, and on July 19 the Independent Rates Oversight Committee endorsed the proposal. However, for yesterday’s committee meeting, something led Ms. Frye to remove the three-day-per-week watering restriction from the proposal. For one thing, Ms. Frye acknowledged that she was influenced by many stakeholder groups that strongly opposed the ordinance as being “onerous and burdensome.”

Opposition to the proposal also included local landscaping organizations. A letter from Jim Taylor and Glen Schmidt from the American Society of Landscape Architects, San Diego Chapter, argued that weather conditions in San Diego vary significantly between the coast and inland portions of the city and the 3-day per week schedule allows no flexibility for watering plants in San Diego’s varying climate zones.

“Hydro Zones” that permit watering amounts to vary according to the different temperature zones should be included in the ordinance, according to a letter from Sandra Grow and Diane Downey from the California Landscape Contractors Association. During public comment, Sandra also added that using technology (e.g., weather based irrigation controllers) combined with an intensive educational program could be enough to produce sufficient conservation savings.

Bruce Reznik from San Diego Coastkeeper was one of the public speakers in favor of the ordinance, although he expressed disappointment at the removal of the 3-day restriction. He said that conservation remains the best way to get more water in the system but unfortunately there’s not much left in the ordinance to encourage it. Saying “we live beyond our water means” Reznik observed that we suffer from “desert denial.” At some point, he suggested, we’ll have to face a choice between water for health and safety versus water for lawns.

The Committee voted unanimously to forward the scaled-back proposal to the City Council. It’s possible the Council may consider adding the “hydro zone” concept or other ways to make it more flexible, but as it now stands, the only permanent restriction for all times of the day is that landscape irrigation must be before 10:00 a.m. and after 6:00 p.m. during the months of June through October, and before 10:00 a.m. and after 4:00 p.m. during the months of November through May. With the real limitations on water use in “normal” times stripped out, that leaves the ordinance’s water conservation message largely symbolic.

Water Rate Increase

The City of San Diego purchases between 85-90% of its water from the San Diego County Water Authority (CWA). CWA, in turn, purchases its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD).

On April 13, MWD imposed rate increases effective January 1, 2011. On June 24, CWA responded with its own rate increase, “passing through” the MWD increases to its member water agencies in San Diego County, including the City of San Diego.

Now, the San Diego Public Utilities Department is requesting a rate increase to cover the price hike for wholesale water purchased from CWA. Alex Ruiz, interim director of the department, said that the rate increase covers only the higher price from CWA and that none of the increase would go to pay for other departmental expenses.

The picture then gets messy. CWA filed a lawsuit against MWD charging that it used improper methods to calculate its rate increase. MWD will apparently retaliate by refusing to pay an incentive/subsidy agreed to earlier that would have enabled the Poseidon Desalination Plant to sell water at an affordable price (thus putting the county water agencies with contracts to purchase desalinated water in a financial bind, so as a bailout CWA is now in the process of taking over the contracts and agreeing to purchase all water produced at the desalination plant. It will then spread the desal expense to be shared among all county water agencies).

Meanwhile, several county water agencies are complaining that CWA itself is improperly padding its rate increase with internal expenses and that it’s not a true “pass through” rate increase.

Opposing the City’s rate request, Carl DeMaio disputed that the water rate increase will only go to offset the increase in the price of wholesale water that the city purchases from the County Water Authority. He gave a PowerPoint presentation to highlight some of his assertions, saying the increase also will go to pay for increased labor costs, pension costs, bonuses, and salary increases. A little off the point, he also invoked the complaint about water users reducing consumption and then being rewarded with a price increase.

DeMaio recently appeared on two TV stations in advance of today’s meeting to press his campaign against the increase:

Although the Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) previously endorsed the rate request, they did have concerns about MWD’s pricing structure, supported CWA’s lawsuit against it, and thought San Diego should be more involved. Andrew Hollingworth presented a letter indicating that he could support the rate increase only if the City would address that issue as follows:

  1. The Mayor and City Council work with San Diego County state legislators to seek a mandate for an outside review of MWD’s rates and cost structure
  2. The Mayor and City Council review resulting recommendations and sponsor state legislation mandating implementation of the recommendations
  3. The Mayor and City Council formally support CWA’s negotiations and lawsuit against MWD regarding the improper cost allocations

Sherri Lightner made the motion to forward the request to the City Council without a recommendation. That was possibly to help DeMaio avoid voting against the Council being able to consider the item, but he voted no anyway. Only two votes were needed, however, so with Frye voting yes the item goes to the City Council.

Water Budget Based Billing

This item ties in somewhat with the water rate issue. Alex Ruiz spoke briefly about a pilot study launched by Mayor Sanders and Donna Frye that is looking at the feasibility of designing water budgets for households that would allocate and price water in such a way as to encourage conservation without penalizing those who already use water efficiently (and presumably penalize waste).

The designers of the pilot studied the Irvine Ranch Water District which has been successfully using a water budget for years. Much work remains before a full report can be prepared, but you can read an overview in this letter to the City Council from Mayor Sanders and Councilmember Frye.

Local reports about yesterday’s meeting:


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