GrokSurf's San Diego

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

Water rates and the cost of providing service in San Diego

Posted by George J Janczyn on June 26, 2012

Periodically water and wastewater rates paid by San Diego residents becomes a hot topic and with November elections drawing nearer the issue is certainly going to get more coverage, much of it political, in the press. But if you want to truly understand water rates you need to look beyond the surface rhetoric of politicians (recall one mayoral candidate who said he can cut rates by 15% and freeze them that way for five years) and press reports that sometimes inflame more than inform.

Nobody likes to see water rates go up but the City of San Diego’s unique geographic and climate characteristics make expensive water inevitable since most of it has to be imported from great distances. Relying on distant water sources also makes San Diego vulnerable to supply reductions from those sources (Colorado River and Northern California) and potential disasters that could cut the supply entirely for an extended period of time.

Reducing dependence on water imports by developing more local supplies through water recycling and potable reuse is expensive.* Protecting against potential supply cutoffs by increasing local storage capacity is expensive. Water conservation is the most cost-effective means of reducing demand for imported water to the extent that people are willing to conserve. In general, these things are understood by informed residents. What’s not well understood yet is what may happen to water rates in the future.

*(although the City of San Diego doesn’t plan to purchase desalinated water in the foreseeable future, if the Poseidon plant in Carlsbad deal with the County Water Authority (CWA) comes together the city will, however, be required to pay a certain percentage towards that project as part of the cost of being connected to CWA’s infrastructure)

Politics aside, for a better understanding of issues underlying water rate structure there is useful information out there: the 2010 Urban Water Management Plans for the City of San Diego and for San Diego County; the city’s 2011 Recycled Water Master Plan and Recycled Water Study. There’s also the city’s new Comprehensive Water Policy that was implemented following a drive by city councilmember Sherri Lightner to update the city’s old and sometimes conflicting policies.

More immediately, the city has contracted with Black & Veatch (a global engineering, consulting, construction and operations company specializing in infrastructure development) to conduct a Cost of Service Study.

The information and recommendations that will result from this study, due to be completed around the end of the year, will play a large role in determining water and wastewater rates in the coming years.

A very good presentation on how this new study will help determine a new rate structure for San Diego was given at the June 18 meeting of the Independent Rates Oversight Committee.

You can listen to the presentation (including an interesting Q&A afterwards) and view the Powerpoint slides just below.

The presentation was given by Black & Veatch Director Ann Bui, Principle Consultant Brian Jewett, and Patricia Tennyson from Katz & Associates. Thank you to IROC representatives Ernie Linares and Monica Foster for their assistance in securing permission for me to record a copy of the presentation. Apologies for a few seconds of interference about halfway through the recording:

Audio: http://groksurf.org/Sound/WaterCostOfServiceStudy.mp3%20

 

Slides:

 

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