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Archive for the ‘Natural Resources and Culture Committee’ Category

Water prices in San Diego again raise hackles at NR&C meeting

Posted by George J Janczyn on March 23, 2011

What drew me to the San Diego City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee meeting today was a report on “Water Budget Based Billing” on the agenda.

This seemed timely because the price of water in the city of San Diego has lately been attracting more media attention (again). City Councilmember and mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio has been energetically spinning a proposal to cut water rates across the board by 15%, saying that the Public Utilities Department (PUD) management has room to tighten its own belt. Criticism also appears in a ‘people use less but pay more’ story the Voice of San Diego just published highlighting a woman who made a concerted effort to conserve water and has only a higher water bill to show for it.

Elsewhere people are calling for water rates that penalize waste and reward conservation while at the same time insisting that prices should only reflect absolutely necessary costs–not necessarily compatible goals. And comparisons are drawn with other water districts with lower rates–ignoring the fact those districts may import proportionately far less water than San Diego and have very different cost structures.

Back to the meeting. The only printed material distributed for this agenda item was a September 2010 memo from Mayor Sanders to the City Council stating that an expanded research effort would be undertaken to determine the feasibility of implementing a water budget billing scheme (inspired by one in place to our north at the Irvine Ranch Water District). That was the background.

So it seemed that some interesting data about what has been learned might come out at this meeting.

PUD Assistant Director Alex Ruiz gave a brief presentation that repeated what was in the memo, saying that the department now plans to issue an RFP for a technical expert to lead a project that would create a water budget proposal by the end of the year. That was about it. Councilmember Sherri Lightner asked if there is a written report on the data gathering to date, and there wasn’t, although Mr. Ruiz said he could bring something to the next meeting if desired. I don’t think anyone was pleased that a detailed and written report had not been prepared.

Lightner also asked about a cost of service study that had been anticipated for this fiscal year but it turned out one is not being done, nor is one intended for the next fiscal year. Apparently a cost of service study is an option for PUD in the event of certain budgetary issues, but the department decided there’s no need for it at this time. The mayor’s spokesman interjected that the lack of a cost of service study should therefore be seen as good news.

Mr. Ruiz said that PUD has to juggle many factors with water rates and that they’re sensitive to low-use and low-income users, but that the goal is for all groups to pay an equitable proportion of the costs. One example of the difficulty in achieving that, he said, was the fixed base fee (for infrastructure and maintenance) which is the same for everyone regardless how much they use, meaning that low water users pay proportionately more for infrastructure and maintenance than larger users. Other schemes for distributing those costs, however, also tend to have inherent flaws that seem unfair to certain users.

Councilmember Carl DeMaio demanded that PUD make a commitment to a water rate structure where “if people use less water they’ll pay less.” He then revealed where he came up with his campaign theme that water rates can be reduced by 15%. Apparently there was an earlier committee or city council meeting where DeMaio had posed a question about PUD’s ability to maintain service levels even if conservation resulted in a 15% reduction in demand with consequently lower revenues for the department, and Ruiz had responded that the department would be able to get by with that.

“I can even show you in writing where you said that!” exclaimed DeMaio.

DeMaio’s theory that lost revenue from a 15% conservation rate is the same as a 15% cut in water rates that the department can absorb may be arguable, and it conveniently ignores another issue: if there has already been lost revenue due to a 15% reduction in water use, the department is already having to deal with that. So DeMaio’s plan would burden the department with yet another 15% cut. That makes 30%.

To be continued at the next meeting on April 20.

This all reminds me of something I wrote about getting city residents to develop a permanent mindset to conserve water in a 2009 post:

Increases are needed to offset infrastructure and delivery costs, but higher prices can be imposed to control demand as well (David Zetland at Aguanomics is a strong advocate for that approach). That’s where I think we’re headed. If we do price ourselves into appropriate water behavior, though, I hope it’s done equitably. Up north, the Irvine Ranch Water District has a well-considered approach that meets my fairness test. Their rate structure defines a typical household’s size and water needs, then has tiered pricing in low-volume / base rate / inefficient / excessive / wasteful categories. If one’s household is greater in size than the assumed model, one can apply for a variance to accomodate the extra need and avoid being penalized. I would like San Diego to follow suit with such a plan, but I predict our water department would resist having to do more needs analysis and processing of the inevitable variance requests, a great deal of work to be sure.

Of course artificially setting prices to control demand opens another can of worms. For one thing, there’s the city ordinance that requires water rates (as opposed to the fixed water base fee) to only pass along what the city has to pay to purchase the water (remember most of the city’s water is imported via the County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District). Also, if an artificially high rate for water gluttons is charged, where does that money go to in the PUD budget and how can it be used? Lots of details and questions, not many answers.

On a possibly related note: I consume much less gasoline than I used to but it sure costs me a lot more now.

[Late update: UCAN’s response to this water rate development]


Posted in Natural Resources and Culture Committee, Water | 1 Comment »

On the proposed overhaul of San Diego’s water policy

Posted by George J Janczyn on March 3, 2011

At yesterday’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee meeting, Councilmember Sherri Lightner unveiled her proposal for an overhaul of San Diego water policy. Click here to see the draft policy.

I addressed the committee during the public comments period. Here’s what I had to share:

Good afternoon. My name is George Janczyn. I publish a San Diego water blog and I would like to share some comments on the overhaul of San Diego’s water policy.

First, although we’ve experienced a fairly wet rainy season, the policy should not succumb to popular pressure to ease water use restrictions. Despite our efforts to develop more local supplies like desalination, Indirect Potable Reuse, and groundwater resources, the fact is that San Diego will always get most of its water by importing it. But our northern California supply is being reduced because of limits on pumping from the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta; and our current Colorado River allocation is threatened because demand by the lower basin states exceeds what the river can sustain, even if one leaves climate change out of the equation. Eventually there could be reductions in water from the Colorado River as well.

As demand for water grows in San Diego, providing a reliable supply will become more challenging.

San Diegans need to develop a mindset for living in an arid region and discard the notion that strict conservation is needed only periodically when there’s a severe drought. San Diego needs a policy of more rigorous conservation practices…and permanently, not just when there’s a dry year.

Second, the policy should be more assertive in supporting potable reuse for high-quality and reliable local water. Despite the fact that the previous city councils strongly promoted a potable reuse policy, some committee votes more recently have actually hindered development on that front and the new proposed water policy only half-heartedly offers this:

“Support indirect potable reuse if the Water Purification Demonstration Project is successful.”

We need to look forward on the use of IPR.

The original plan was to have full-scale IPR reservoir augmentation that will produce only 16 million gallons per day. What the committee should do now is look into the feasibility of increasing that amount to a meaningful number, say 50 million gallons per day using Direct Potable Reuse, so that it would be on a par with the output of the upcoming Poseidon desalination plant.

Planning for an eventual 50 million gallons per day for San Vicente reservoir augmentation would require study. In order to accommodate that much capacity, the use of San Vicente Reservoir as a six-month environmental buffer might not be possible. While the reservoir could still be used for storage of the purified reclaimed water, the higher volume of water would mean more turnover in the reservoir so the time period would have to be shorter – in essence the indirect potable reuse aspect would cross over into being Direct Potable Reuse (DPR) which would raise new questions about safeguards.

On that topic, note that California Senate Bill 918 (Pavley) would require the State Department of Public Health, in consultation with the State Water Resources Control Board, to investigate the feasibility of developing water recycling criteria for DPR. More immediately, I’ve learned the WateReuse Research Foundation might soon support a study on DPR feasibility. The NR&C committee should consider asking the Public Utilities Department to support or coordinate with the Foundation on such research.

In any case, San Diego water policy should more firmly promote Potable Reuse as an integral component of our water strategy.

Thank you.

See also:

Posted in Indirect potable reuse, Natural Resources and Culture Committee, Water, Water conservation | Tagged: , | 4 Comments »

San Diego’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee hoists new website

Posted by George J Janczyn on February 14, 2011

The San Diego City Council’s Natural Resources and Culture (NR&C) Committee has a new website:

Click on image to visit the website

The NR&C committee has new membership following last fall’s city elections. David Alvarez replaces Donna Frye as chair, and Lorie Zapf takes Marti Emerald’s place. Carl DeMaio and Sherri Lightner retain their previous memberships.

This committee plays an important role in shaping water policy issues for the San Diego City Council. Whether this new website evolves into a useful resource remains to be seen. For now it’s a template with basic meeting and membership information.

The first meeting of NR&C in 2011 was Feb 2, but the group managed only to dispense with a few items of routine business at that meeting. The most important agenda item (in my opinion), a discussion of the committee’s important priorities for the coming year, pretty much never happened other than to acknowledge receipt of memorandums from each member on the subject. DeMaio didn’t even stay at the meeting for that part of the agenda (here’s my earlier report from that meeting).

On the subject of water, Sherri Lightner’s memo has the most information, mostly recalling her previous efforts to reconcile conflicting water policies and to generate a renewed comprehensive water policy. Carl DeMaio’s memo simply highlights water pricing issues that his mayoral campaign has centered on, and newcomer Lori Zapf’s memo is largely silent on water issues. Chairman Alavarez’s memo mentions water conservation.

I would have expected some attention to wastewater treatment, seeing as San Diego is living on its final EPA waiver from having to provide secondary treatment at the Point Loma Wastewater Treatment Plant. Are we planning ways to further avoid doing that treatment or are we preparing to shoulder the cost of doing it?

The Water Purification Demonstration Project (Indirect Potable Reuse) is another area this committee should be following closely. All aspects of water recycling in SanDiego could use an infusion of energy and support. Previously, Marti Emerald and Donna Frye were the committee’s strongest proponents for IPR and they’re now gone. Zapf and Alvarez have yet to weigh in on this.

Water conservation. The committee could provide more leadership in helping to change local residents’ attitude about water use. Too many people think conservation is needed only during crisis and that everyone should be able to “return to normal” now that reservoirs that supply us from northern California have benefited from winter rains and snow. Donna Frye’s effort to strengthen the city’s water use regulations last fall was unfortunately weakened after the committee was pressured by special interests, but her basic idea should be promoted.

The next NR&C meeting is scheduled for March 2 (although no agenda posted as of this writing). I’m glad that Mr. Alvarez took the initiative on getting a committee website up, and having seen him in action at the first committee meeting I’m staying optimistic that this committee will rise to the coming challenges.


Posted in Natural Resources and Culture Committee, Water | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Committee on Natural Resources and Culture stalls over action plan

Posted by George J Janczyn on February 3, 2011

The first meeting of the reconstituted San Diego City Council Committee on Natural Resources and Culture (NR&C) was held Wednesday February 2. The committee reorganized after last November’s election that brought in two new members to replace outgoing councilmembers.

David Alvarez, Chair, is taking the place of Donna Frye who termed out of her council position. Lorie Zapf is getting Marti Emerald’s seat (Emerald is still a Councilmember but received different committee assignments for this year). Carl DeMaio remains the Vice Chair and Sherri Lightner continues with her membership.

The NR&C Committee’s area of responsibility includes Clean Water Program, Energy, Water, State and Federal Endangered Species Acts, Arts and Culture, TOT, Solid Waste Disposal, Recycling, APCD/Air Quality, Hazardous Waste, MSCP, and Regional Parks and Open Space. I follow the Committee’s doings because it is deeply involved in operations of the Public Utilities Department and especially with water.

Last December, Council President Anthony Young sent out a memo asking committee chairs to submit a 90-day action plan for their respective committees.

David Alvarez responded for NR&C on December 30, indicating that he was soliciting input from colleagues on the Council, the Mayor’s Office, City staff, and other stakeholders and hoped to have it ready by the end of January. He also stated that his own initial three priorities were: 1) Promoting water conservation; 2) Flood protection and environmental preservation; 3) Promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Wednesday’s agenda included the 90-day action plan as a discussion item.

For this meeting I thought the committee members would talk about feedback Alvarez had gotten from the various stakeholders mentioned in his memo, then discuss their own priorities and negotiate a final 90-day action plan for the committee. That’s not what happened, though.

While they were working on the last agenda item before the action plan, Carl DeMaio slipped out of his chair, exited the room, and never returned.

I don’t know if Alvarez had other plans and changed because of DeMaio’s absence, but he asked Lightner and Zapf only to mention highlights from their memorandums, and then he had a few comments about his items. That was it. No discussion. No debate. No action plan. In effect, that made everything a priority.

There are plenty of water-related issues in those memorandums. If you examine them, you’ll find there’s a great deal there, perhaps even too much for a 90-day plan.

Lightner wants to completely overhaul obsolete and conflicting water policies and to develop a comprehensive policy for a sustainable water supply in San Diego. Her ideas alone could take six months to plan and prioritize. Carl DeMaio is crusading to reform financial management of the Public Utilities Department and for lower water rates (it will be interesting to see how he balances Council work against his 2012 mayoral campaign). Alvarez has water conservation and flood control concerns along with Zapf.

Nobody mentioned planning a future for indirect potable reuse after completion of the Water Purification Demonstration Project, although Lightner mentions IPR in a generic sense. It’s only a one-year project and I hope more advance planning is done not only for the subsequent production phase but for possibly wider application of IPR beyond that.

An action plan should be fairly specific about things to do. A priority such as “Promoting Water Conservation” needs to be translated into concrete steps. As things now stand, the committee has a collection of memorandums with numerous ideas all competing for attention. It will be difficult for the committee to focus on a selection of them, especially with complex and sometimes mundane demands from a never-ending workflow of projects and requests from the Public Utilities Department.

Aside from the planning deficit and despite the loss of knowledge and experience that Donna Frye and Marti Emerald contributed, I think the committee shows promise.

In his role as Chair, Alvarez performed competently and cordially, the committee members were otherwise well-prepared for some difficult and complex agenda items, and they seem to get along with each other. So despite the committee lagging on a coordinated action plan for important water issues, I’m hopeful that in the coming weeks and months they’ll be able to regroup, organize their ideas, and implement their plans successfully.


Posted in Environment, Natural Resources and Culture Committee, Water | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

San Diego’s IPR water treatment facility sidetracked by DeMaio and Lightner

Posted by George J Janczyn on June 16, 2010

Councilmembers Sherri Lightner and Carl DeMaio took advantage of councilmember Marti Emerald’s absence at today’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee meeting and threw a wrench into the gears of San Diego’s Indirect Potable Reuse/Reservoir Augmentation Demonstration Project (IPR Project).

The IPR Project is a City Council-approved study seeking to determine whether the Indirect Potable Reuse process can be used to give San Diego an additional high-quality and reliable source of drinking water.

Months ago, the City Council approved a contract for project management for the IPR project. The next step in the project was to identify who would construct the advanced water treatment facility required for the project. The San Diego Water Department put that out to bid in February, evaluated the candidates, and in April made a selection.

A contract for the new treatment facility was on the agenda for today’s committee meeting (I wrote a preview about it on Monday). It was on the agenda as a routine informational consent item that would be sent to the City Council for approval. Marsi Steirer, Deputy Director of the Water Department (morphing into Assistant Director of the Public Utilities Department under a reorganization), was on hand to answer questions.

When Donna Frye, chairing, summarized the agenda for the day, Sherri Lightner announced she wanted to pull the item from the consent agenda because she wanted to ask questions. Shortly, she had her chance.

“What’s the difference between this facility and the one they have in Orange County?” she asked. Answer: no real difference, the same technology is used.

“Then why do we need a study if we already have that information from their facility?” Answer: because Orange County is augmenting groundwater supplies while San Diego would be augmenting reservoir water, and because the source water for San Diego’s project is from reclaimed tertiary water while the source for Orange County is from secondary treatment water. Also because of regulatory requirements.

Lightner didn’t seem to care for these answers and said she doesn’t see why we can’t partner with Orange County and have some kind of cooperative venture with them and that she’d like to see more “philosophical” background information on how that might be accomplished.

At this point, Carl DeMaio made a motion…for a continuance. When pressed to say what for, he indicated that he thinks this project needs more examination, and besides, he thought Marti Emerald really should have the opportunity to vote!

Continuing, Frye allowed that the committee would hear the people who had signed up for public comment. Obviously they had planned their comments without suspecting this untoward development, so they had to think on their feet quickly. They all opted to address DeMaio’s motion to suppress (er, continue).

Jill Witkowski and Bruce Reznik from San Diego Coastkeeper, Jim Peugh from the San Diego Audubon Society, Marco Gonzalez from the Coastal Environmental Rights Foundation, Angelika Villagrana from the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, Cary Lowe from the San Diego River Park Foundation, Amy Harris from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, all took turns standing before the committee to plead for them not to use a continuance to impede the project.

Lightner seemed quite annoyed by the comments and at one point indignantly asked the chair, “are they actually commenting on the motion to continue?” To which Frye replied, “It sure seems like it to me. Try listening to their words.” (or something like that). Lightner obviously wasn’t pleased having the public enter the debate on the motion!

The pleas were unheeded, however, and when Frye called the vote, she was alone in voting against a continuance.

So there you have it. Even though the IPR project was vetted and approved by the City Council, DeMaio and Lightner have decided to question the premise of the project just as it’s getting under way, with questions that sound like they’re from someone who is hearing about it for the first time. Further, the stalling technique employed with Marti Emerald conveniently absent seems like immature politics, not the behavior of one with a sincere desire for understanding. Such questions, if genuine, could and should have been asked when the overall project approval was being discussed.

I don’t know if the committee will meet in July; if not, it could be August before the matter can even be sent to the full Council.

I wonder if DeMaio and Lightner will come to understand that this is not a useful way to handle taxpayer time and money. I have a feeling this would not have happened if Marti Emerald had been present.


Posted in Natural Resources and Culture Committee, Politics, Water | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »