GrokSurf's San Diego

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

Paying for water in San Diego

Posted by George J Janczyn on January 22, 2011

The San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD), faced with an increase in the price it must pay for imported water, proposes to pass along the price increase to consumers. Unless the City Council rejects the proposal at a public hearing on Monday January 24, the price increase will take effect March 1. The PUD has indicated that the increase is to cover only the cost of the water it must buy, not to fund other departmental expenses.

The San Diego County Taxpayers Association (SDCTA) has released a statement opposing the increase. As rationale, the Association cites a long history of rate increases (as if that has any bearing on the current issue) and echoes arguments made by Councilmember Carl DeMaio that PUD hasn’t addressed management problems that were previously criticized. They say the department should instead dip into reserves or use Capital Improvement funds to cover the cost.

The underlying theme is, therefore, that because of PUD’s perceived management faults, it should be punished by forcing the department to absorb the increased cost of water rather than making consumers pay for it.

Pretty weak. There are appropriate venues for challenging management practices. This isn’t one of them. And reserves should be used for temporary emergencies, not for ongoing expenses.

Amazingly, SDCTA introduces this gem of a thought at the beginning of their document:

“While the cost of water will undoubtedly increase until the San Diego region has a local, sustainable, and reliable water supply, more emphasis must be placed on local water agencies to reduce costs to minimize the impacts on ratepayers.”

The price will go up UNTIL we have more local, sustainable, and reliable water? Someone was out to lunch when that statement was printed.

We’re not trying to develop more local supplies because it’s cheaper, but because we’re trying to safeguard against a catastrophic cutoff of our supply of imported water. San Diego imports water because it doesn’t have enough of its own. Development of local supplies is more expensive than importing water. Just look at desalination or indirect potable reuse or squeezing out a little more groundwater. Cheaper? Not quite.

Criticism of PUD management and financial practices should be addressed through appropriate channels. Using past disagreements about management as an excuse to force the PUD to absorb the higher price of wholesale water in this case can only disrupt department operations and finances.

[January 28 postscript]

I don’t think I differ that much philosophically with the Taxpayers Association; my disagreement is more with inflaming public opinion on the pass-through increase as a political tactic in getting those other long-standing issues addressed.

I rather agree with Peter Gleick who wrote: “Psychologically and socially, it is hard for millions of people who love this region to admit that it is fundamentally dry and that the rules for building, living, and working there must be different from those in the wet regions where most of them were born and raised.” (

Unfortunately, too many San Diegans still believe they should get Wal-Mart prices to water their lawns, and the publicity surrounding this latest controversy probably reinforces that mindset.

As for local vs. imported costs, I think that the cost of water must realistically be expected to rise regardless of source. I don’t think people should consider cost savings to be the reason for more development of local sources. The main reason is better protection against reduced access to imported supplies. Supply reductions is an ongoing problem likely to increase in severity with Colorado River and State Water Project water even without a catastrophic cutoff due to disaster.


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