GrokSurf's San Diego

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

Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

San Diego campaign politics interferes with oversight of Public Utilities Department water operations

Posted by George J Janczyn on March 30, 2012

On April 18, 2007, before San Diego’s Water Department and Metropolitan Wastewater Department were combined into the Public Utilities Department (PUD) the San Diego City Council enacted an ordinance to establish an Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC):

“It is the purpose and intent of the City Council to establish the Independent Rates Oversight Committee to serve as an official advisory body to the Mayor, City Council, and City Manager on policy issues relating to the oversight of the City of San Diego’s public utilities department operations including, but not limited to, resource management, planned expenditures, service delivery methods, public awareness and outreach efforts, high quality and affordable utility services provided by the public utilities departments, including the Water and Metropolitan Wastewater Departments. In addition, the Independent Rates Oversight Committee is established to assist the City in tracking and reviewing the use of rate proceeds to advance the capital improvements related to rate packages and work programs adopted by the City Council.”

The ordinance provides for a committee of eleven members plus several ex-officio members. It requires that a majority of the members of the committee shall possess expertise in one or more of the following areas: accounting, auditing, engineering, biology or environmental science, finance or municipal finance, law, and construction management.

Take some time to examine the IROC website agendas and minutes and you’ll understand the considerable effort IROC and its subcommittees put into meaningful oversight on issues that involve ensuring a safe and reliable water supply, sound environmental management, reasonable rates, wise investments, efficient operations, a knowledgeable public, and a sustainable water and wastewater system.

IROC members have contributed countless hours to help San Diego deal with its complex, difficult water and wastewater management challenges. Consider also that the committee members labor without financial compensation–we should be grateful to these dedicated civic-minded volunteers working to improve the community.

Unfortunately the City of San Diego’s Public Utilities Department (PUD) takes its marching orders from the Mayor and City Council. It shouldn’t be hard to see that powerful and wealthy competing interests consume large portions of these politicians’ time, so that a solid background of knowledge, expertise, and understanding of San Diego’s water and wastewater management issues is not a particularly strong suit.

IROC, therefore, has the broad expert knowledge to perform competent oversight that helps compensate for political interference or indifference over the Public Utilities Department.

Water rates are one political issue that some politicians are using in their campaigns. Some politicians are prone to blame high water rates on excessive salaries or financial mismanagement but you don’t usually hear them pointing out that 80% to 90% of San Diego’s water must be imported and the wholesalers selling the water control the price and we have to pay it. San Diego is in a semi-arid region with very limited local water resources, so it’s simply a fact of life that if you want to live in San Diego you’re going to pay plenty for water.

Even though IROC spends a great deal of time reviewing a broad array of factors that influence water rates, the fact is that San Diego has only limited control over water rates. On top of the massive water purchases, there are capital improvements, infrastructure upgrades, replacement of aging pipelines, performing tasks required by law or consent agreements and numerous other factors that make water cost so much.

Notwithstanding Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s claim that he can reduce water rates by 15% and keep that rate frozen for five years, the fact is that the cost of doing so would prevent replacement of worn out infrastructure and preventive maintenance. We would soon face even more broken pipes, sewage spills, wrecked streets, flooded homes, boil water orders, fines, and court orders. It’s important for PUD to be run as efficiently as possible, but cost control must not be an excuse to defer action on innumerable requirements to keep things working. It would certainly make people consider water conservation a lower priority.

Lately, IROC has increasingly been targeted by politicians and affiliated groups who allege it isn’t doing its job as mandated by the city ordinance.

For example, on November 7, 2011, in response to questions raised by Audit Committee member Thomas Hebrank about IROC needing to procure performance audits, an Independent Budget Analyst report was delivered to the committee. The report provides good clarity about the financial constraints IROC faced in initiating such audits.

The City Attorney also was queried by Audit Committee questions that implied IROC was acting beyond the scope of its responsibilities. The City Attorney’s reply was “Based on our review of the annual reports, we conclude that IROC’s recommendations and findings are within its scope of duties as described in the SDMC.”

The same City Attorney report also replied to questions from the Natural Resources and Culture Committee as to (l) whether IROC should be reviewing City policies regarding the water and wastewater utilities or be focusing solely on the City’s use of ratepayer funds, and (2) whether review by IROC is a prerequisite to City Council action on water and wastewater matters.

In this case, the City Attorney concluded that “The focus of IROC is oversight of water and wastewater ratepayer funds and the perfonmance of
the City utilities. IROC is also tasked with advising the Mayor and City Council on policy issues related to water and wastewater service, having assumed that responsibility of the formerer PUAC. While prior review by IROC is recommended so that IROC can accomplish its mission, IROC review is not a legal prerequisite to City Council action.”

Subsequently, on March 5 there was an Audit Committee agenda item entitled “Proposal to Authorize City Auditor to Conduct PERFORMANCE AUDITS OF WATER AND WASTEWATER SYSTEMS. Interestingly, the supporting document for that item was a proposal from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association dated February 2012 entitled “Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) Proposed Municipal Code Revisions”. A reading of the proposal to revise the ordinance seems to indicate that it would significantly curtail the scope of IROC and possibly hamper IROC’s ability to provide value to the Mayor and City Council.

A look at the Audit Committee Actions document for that meeting shows that things went considerably further than authorizing the city auditor to conduct performance audits. Indeed, the action taken was based on the SDCTA proposal to revise and limit IROC’s scope of responsibilities:

ACTION: Motion by Councilmember DeMaio, second by Chair Faulconer, to recommend the City Council:
a. Amend the San Diego Municipal Code in a manner consistent with the proposal’s new municipal code section 26.2003(d), related to the City Auditor.

b. Amend Municipal Code Section 26.2001, titled, “Purpose and Intent,” to read:

“It is the purpose and intent of the City Council to establish the Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) to serve as an official advisory body to the Mayor and City Council on issues relating to water and wastewater system management. The goal of IROC is to ensure that rates charged to City residents are appropriate and the funds generated from rates are used appropriately. By establishing IROC, the Mayor and City Council seek a water and wastewater system that is efficiently and effectively managed.”

c. Make these amendments prior to any consideration of a rate increase in the water and wastewater system.

d. Ensure the City Auditor’s annual independent performance audits on water and wastewater systems do not affect the City’s general fund by funding audits through the Water and Wastewater departments’ Dedicated Reserve from Efficiency and Saving (DRES) fund or by appropriating funding annually from the Water and Wastewater departments’ budgets.

SDCTA’s Sean Karafin kindly shared with me the precise wording of Carl DeMaio’s motion in the above item:

“I would make a motion that we move this proposal to the City Council with recommendation that they amend the San Diego municipal code in a manner consistent with what the Taxpayers Association has suggested under item ‘d’ and the amendments to the purpose section, that I read for the record and I will be happy to provide our City Attorney here with my notes*, and that we make recommendation from the Audit Committee to the City Council that these amendments be made prior to any consideration of a rate increase in the water and wastewater systems.”

At some point after the abovementioned Audit Committee, SDCTA apparently made some revisions to their February proposal and presented the new version at IROC’s March 19 meeting. SDCTA’s President and CEO Lani Lutar and Economic Policy Analyst Sean Karafin’s discussion also included this Powerpoint presentation that was apparently intended to simplify matters by drawing comparisons between specific wording in the existing ordinance juxtaposed above the proposed changes.

The proposal implies that IROC was budgeted $100,000 each year to pay for performance and financial audits and that no financial audit has been performed. However it should have been noted that the Independent Budget Analyst report stated that it wasn’t until April 12, 2010 that funds for utility performance audits were made available to the city auditor.

The SDCTA proposal also seeks to eliminate some expertise requirements for committee members, and further appears to reduce IROC’s independence by requiring it to submit an annual work plan for approval by the Natural Resources and Culture Committee (NR&C).

With great concern about the proposal, IROC called a rare (and possibly the first one ever) special meeting on Monday to discuss the San Diego County Taxpayers Association proposal

SDCTA Economic Policy Analyst Sean Karafin was present to take questions, but he mostly got an earful of criticism.

Andrew Hollingworth was perhaps the only committee member in full support of the revised ordinance. He also added “I think it also appropriate to consider the language of the mayor’s intent in establishing IROC… I believe the taxpayers association have language here which was the original press release establishing IROC.”

Jim Peugh replied: “I guess the City Council passed the ordinance, so I’m not particularly concerned with what the publicity was. I think we need to work just with the ordinance that was passed by the council.”

Irene Stallard-Rodriguez said: “I like some portions of what they’re recommending, there are some good portions that are good, I don’t think all of it is bad, I just don’t think all of it is appropriate, there are one or two things that are good [e.g., deleting the reference to the city manager which no longer exists; and clarifying that water and wastewater departments are now combined]. But the rest of it is like, “you’re kidding.”

Don Billings: “I think there are two issues here; there’s some things that to my surprise were taken to audit and some to city council…which is not just technical changes. It’s a substantial narrowing of IROC’s charter which in my view strips IROC of its ability to examine most of the major factors that track rates and I think it’s foolish…. We wouldn’t be able to look at a lot of the things that drive rates. It’s a caricature of oversight. If you go into the foyer here and look at the mission of the department, it’s about public health and welfare, it’s about water reliability and sustainable supplies, and long range planning and making sure not just that we execute current projects efficiently, which is very important, but it’s so much more than that.”

Gail Welch: “I’ve spent a great deal of time in the finance committee and feel we’re making progress in the finance committee…it seems the charter we have now is a good framework.

Also, Pat Zaharopoulos, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Middle Class Taxpayers Association spoke briefly during public comment. “The present ordinance seems to be broadly written to allow IROC to be independent…the cost of services need to consider the long-range assessment of capital and department operations and infrastructure and many factors to be properly determined. You can’t look at only one variable only and limit you to rates without tampering with your independence and ability to act logically. We oppose the proposed amendment.”

Deputy City Attorney representative Tom Zeleny who attends all IROC meetings as a legal consultant pointed out that the proposal to eliminate certain areas of expertise by committee members would probably mean that some members of IROC would have to be removed.

Zeleny also mentioned what he called a “loophole” in the wording of subsection F of the SDCTA proposal. The proposed wording in that section is so similar to the original wording, Zeleny said, “if the intent is to narrow the focus of IROC, subsection F essentially opens everything up again. A lot of what is considered policy can also be considered a question of cost efficiency. There is simply too much overlap between policy, cost effectiveness, and efficiency. I’ve explained this to the taxpayers association.” He added that he expects SDCTA to reword the proposed revision to eliminate the “loophole.”

When SDCTA’s Sean Karafin had an opportunity to comment, he said “our intent is not really to limit IROC, it’s to focus IROC. There is a significant difference, because if you spread yourself too thin and comment on other [important] sections. But more than anything taxpayers were promised oversight of the expenditures of ratepayer funds…that promise should be met first and foremost.”

Andrew Hollingworth, following up, asked, “Mr. Karafin, is it your intent to basically narrow the focus of IROC so that it serves the mayor’s intent that IROC be the ratepayer watchdog and that the taxpayer’s association perception is that it [IROC] spread out in doing all these other things so that mission has been lost?”

Mr. Karafin: “Exactly.”

It was clear, however, that a solid majority of IROC members were dismayed by the SDCTA proposal.

Irene Stallard-Rodriguez soon declared “I move that IROC oppose the taxpayer association proposal.” Don Billings seconded the motion.

As discussion began, Andrew Hollingworth charged that “several ratepayer proposals I’ve made have been quashed over the years. For example, this year one of the reviews I proposed was to compare rates among other local agencies and that was quashed.”

Don Billings responded: “Let me take exception to that because it has a specific legal definition of “quash” and I’m sure there are no motions to quash in the record. With respect to, for example, the idea of benchmarking, that’s the very first thing we did when we went to [HDR?] engineering and we spent a lot of time examining the question of benchmarking and educating ourselves and discovered that as anybody who does benchmarking knows, rankings are the beginning of the analysis and not the substitute for the analysis. Secondly, unfortunately they get misused. We have to be very careful how we do it…we don’t support “Lone Rangers”, we want it to be done properly and have credibility and far from “quashing” any such effort we asked to be part of that effort. To have it explicitly brought to the Finance Committee to talk about how we identify peers
so we do it carefully, how we identify the metrics so that we do it carefully and properly.”

Gail Welch added, “I go to all the finance subcommittees — in fact I go to all the subcommittees — and there is a lot of focus on rates and costs…there are costs related to everything and that is a main theme. When it comes to benchmarking, I’m not opposed to benchmarking but I think we need to understand who we benchmark against, how one utility is run vs. another and what the layouts and geographics vs. ours are and whether it’s even meaningful to compare us to the people you’re comparing us to.”

Don Billings then said “I’d like to call the motion.”

Jim Peugh: All in favor: all members present voted eye, except Andrew Hollingworth who voted to oppose.

How to handle next steps was then discussed. The consensus seemed to be that a letter to the Mayor and City Council simply stating a rejection of the proposal would not be helpful; rather that the letter should not only to state the rejection of the proposal but also outline the concerns and reasoning for the vote.

Don Billings suggested one way to frame the letter:

“We feel we have been operating in accordance with the ordinance. Indeed most of what we look at is financial. We feel the proposed ordinance would turn IROC into a political tool. How did we get involved in embarking on all these rate increases? Because prior city councils didn’t have the courage to tell ratepayers the truth that we have to fix things. Any jackass (pardon the language) can tell the public that we can cut the budget by 10% but a broader understanding of the entire process is necessary to protect ratepayers. Audits and appropriate benchmarks are necessary, but IROC needs an informed view by looking at management of resources and long-term planning, and this proposal doesn’t let us do that. Risk management, how to invest, having a qualified workforce, essentially all the things that come before the department. It also prevents us from looking at things outside of PUD, since many functions that affect rates are performed by agencies outside of PUD.”

As for the proposed workplan in coordination with NR&C: he added “we can certainly create our own work plan, but it shouldn’t be approved by political committee — or we won’t be independent.”

Andrew Hollingworth immediately countered, “I would strongly oppose any proposal to adopt a workplan that was not adopted by NR&C in consultation with IROC.”

Jim Peugh replied, “In that case I guess we could call it the “Dependent Rates Oversight Committee.”

Following more discussion in the same general tenor, Michael Ross moved for Jim Peugh (in collaboration with Gail Welch) to write a letter to the mayor and city council explaining that IROC believes it has operated according to the ordinance and translate the committee consensus as to why it opposes the SDCTA proposal.

Tom Zeleny then stated that assuming there would not be a future meeting to discuss the particulars of the letter, it would be be advisable to decide at this meeting what should be said in the letter.

So discussion ensued about what particulars should be included in the letter. Some committee members referred to notes they had prepared following the Monday presentation in suggesting wording they thought should be included in the letter.

This discussion greatly displeased Andrew Hollingworth who angrily rose and announced his intention to leave the meeting, saying that discussion of items to include in the letter has “obviously been orchestrated.”

Nearly everyone asked him to stay, saying they wanted to hear his opinions and that they certainly had not coordinated their written topical lists –that today was the first time anyone had discussed them. Briefly, Hollingworth sat back down but after a few more minutes of discussion, he appeared increasingly agitated and growing red in the face. Again he abruptly rose, announced that “IROC’s problem all along is that it hasn’t focused on ratepayers” and then he left the room for good.

As to the question of the proposed workplan, a consensus developed as to a willingness to internally develop a workplan within the committee, but to have one developed and/or approved by the Natural Resources and Culture Committee was unacceptable.

Don Billings again phrased sentiment that seemed to satisfy the committee members: “I think it [the SDCTA proposal] completely misses the point of what IROC is about, to have political approval of what we’re going to look at and what we’re not going to look at. A big reason we get into problems in this city and in managing the public health and welfare is because there’s no buffer from the political interference that prevents the professional managers from managing this operation professionally. To me that’s an essential part of my job on IROC…it’s to call it as I see it and not go into NR&C and ask for instructions. We can create our own work plan but there’s no reason to have one approved by NR&C. IROC’s essense is its independence.”

Electioneering with claims that everyone’s being drastically overcharged for water fuels emotional public sentiment but doesn’t change the fact that it costs money to import water and to responsibly manage our meager local water supply and deteriorating infrastructure. Like police and fire, San Diego’s water supply is a serious public health and safety issue.


Posted in Politics, San Diego Public Utilities Department (PUD), Water | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Can San Diego live with a water budget?

Posted by George J Janczyn on April 25, 2011

At Wednesday’s (April 20) Natural Resources and Culture Committee (NR&C) meeting, the Public Utilities Department (PUD) reported on its pilot study for a water budget plan addressing longstanding calls for a pricing mechanism that rewards customers who use water efficiently and discourages waste.

Hypothetical example per unit of water

In a memorandum to the committee, PUD Director Roger Bailey wrote that the water budget would “incentivize conservation without inadvertently penalizing customers who have already been using water efficiently.”

The pilot study examined selected properties in coastal and inland areas in order to evaluate differing needs. PUD now intends to hire a consultant “with experience developing and implementing water budget based billing methodologies.”

Although many people would like a well-designed water budget that sets a reasonable per-person amount at a low price and a significantly higher price for excess or wasteful usage, that position is somewhat at odds with another popular viewpoint that water rates should only reflect the actual cost of providing the water.

Mayor Sanders alluded to that philosophical tension in his letter criticizing a Voice of San Diego article that implied people who conserve water are penalized.

In the letter the mayor discussed logistical and other problems with a water budget, suggesting conservation pricing incentives might even be illegal, writing “California Proposition 218 requires a proportional link between what you charge a customer and what it costs to deliver water to that customer.”

Presently, San Diego has a variable “water used” charge that covers only the cost of water, and a separate fixed “water base fee” to cover infrastructure operations and maintenance, reliability projects, etc.. The City of San Diego Water Cost of Service Rate Study gives a little more insight into pricing issues.

(It gets complicated: although San Diego’s water bill theoretically separates the cost of water from the other charges contained in the fixed fee, the agencies that sell us wholesale water bundle their other expenses into the price they charge us, so in that sense our “water only” price does include other things.)

Addressing California state legal challenges, respected water economist David Zetland showed how a water budget can be designed without violating Proposition 218’s proportionality requirement or amending AB2882 (AB2882 calls for water pricing to reflect “cost of service”). Here’s an example he gives:

  • Set variable prices in a tiered (increasing block rate) structure.
  • Make sure that the first three tiers (e.g., “lifeline,” “basic” and “normal” blocks) recover ALL costs associated with service. Put differently, set revenues (price x quantity for first three tiers) to equal costs.
  • Implement fourth and fifth tiers (“wasteful” and “god-awful”) that are far more expensive.
  • Anyone who uses water in this range will pay 200-300% of the prices in the lower tiers.
  • Since revenue in Tiers 4 and 5 are NOT in the budget, they do not need to reflect the “cost of service.”

An American Water Works Association report further explains such workarounds: Water conservation made legal: water budgets and California law.

Another major issue with water budgets is whether landscaping gets factored in. There are some people (like Mr. Zetland) who believe a water budget should reserve the lowest prices for clearly defined human needs only, while others believe the budget should take property size into account and permit additional low-cost water as lot size and landscaping needs increase.

The “people vs. lawns” conflict can be illustrated by this (completely made up) example of one household getting the lowest price for a monthly use of 7 hundred cubic feet (HCF) or less, while across the street a home with a larger lot size might be given 12HCF or more at the same low price before excess charges kick in. Would that be fair?

In addition to his objection to allowing the lowest rates to apply to landscape watering, Mr. Zetland doesn’t think “local weather conditions” should be a factor in the price structure either. Says Zetland: “The only measure that a water manager needs is the number of people in the house. No need for lot sizes, landscaping density, temperature zones, etc.”

Any water budget promoting conservation and penalizing waste will have to work against the popular assumption that everyone is paying too much for water. As he campaigns for mayor, Councilmember Carl DeMaio has been claiming that he knows how to cut the price of water in San Diego by 15% and that he could freeze it at that level for five years. Zetland, who has discussed water issues with DeMaio’s chief of staff, dismisses the idea as “silly,” saying it would create LESS incentive to reduce consumption and that the utility’s fixed costs may not be covered with such a cut.

Notions like DeMaio’s also sidestep the fact that some 80% of San Diego’s water is imported and must be purchased through wholesale suppliers, i.e., the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) and San Diego County Water Authority (CWA). All trends show the price of purchasing that imported water will continue to increase. As imported water gets more expensive, alternative local sources like potable reuse and desalination will become more competitive, but they are nevertheless expensive infrastructure to build and maintain. Water transfers from Imperial Valley reduce imported water purchases from MWD/CWA, but ultimately it’s still expensive imported water and involves paying MWD for delivering (wheeling) it through the Colorado River Aqueduct.

A water budget can make price allocation seem more fair, but it won’t necessarily mean the price of water will be cheaper.

Informed residents know San Diego should continue to improve local resources to offset potential (inevitable) disruptions in obtaining imported water, but improving reliability will drive the cost of water up no matter how efficiently we conserve or devise water budgets. Price alone can’t be the main concern when it comes to the local water supply. Electioneering with claims that everyone’s being drastically overcharged for water fuels emotional public sentiment but doesn’t change the need to responsibly manage our local water supply. Like police and fire, if the water supply is disrupted, it’s a serious public health and safety issue. Water can’t be treated like a typical retail commodity.

Take a read of Why am I paying more for less water? from On the Public Record. The San Jose Mercury News has an interesting post too, Bay Area water customers may pay price for conservation. The article delves further into why people shouldn’t expect water conservation to make water less expensive:

Rydstrom said that while water consumption has dropped, his agency’s expenses have not — especially the bond payments on its $4.6 billion Water System Improvement Program to repair, replace and upgrade pipelines and reservoirs most at risk in a major earthquake.

“You have to pay your rent, whether you spend 30 nights of the month there or whether you’re on vacation,” Rydstrom said. “For us, the debt is a fixed cost and we have to pay that, regardless of what the water usage is.”

This Alliance for Water Efficiency document further explains water budgets.

Does any of this answer the question posed in the headline? Sorry, this is just a peek at some of the challenges. The letter from Mayor Sanders is a good starting point for a healthy fact-based debate about a water budget for San Diego. Also, Councilmember Sherri Lightner has asked NR&C to place her water policy update plan on the docket for the May meeting. With luck the City Council and others will engage in a good discussion. It will be tough going, though, if this U-T report is any indication: Water concerns wane as drought fades.


David Zetland is a senior water economist at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and has previously written extensively about water budgets:

His forthcoming book The end of abundance: economic solutions to water scarcity discusses water budget based pricing as well.

Note to Mayor Sanders: While I was asking for permission to quote his material, Mr. Zetland told me he would be happy to send you a copy of his book if you ask. Please take him up on the offer!


Posted in Government, Politics, Water | Tagged: , | 2 Comments »

Mayor slams Voice of San Diego on water pricing; end of Drought Level 2 restrictions sent to City Council for approval

Posted by George J Janczyn on April 20, 2011

A letter from Mayor Sanders “to set the record straight about the city’s water-rate structure” was given to to members of the Natural Resources and Culture Committee at today’s meeting. The letter is highly critical of a recent Voice of San Diego story Most Efficient Water Consumers Pay the Price, Too:


[A reader reports that the above letter is illegible. If the display in the window isn’t clear for you, please try the “Fullscreen” button. If that still doesn’t work for you, here is a link the the PDF: Sanders rebuttal]

As for the committee’s deliberations on the agenda item recommending cancellation of the city’s Drought Level 2 declaration, the request was simple enough: rescind the declaration and its water use restrictions. The most noticeable effect of a cancelled drought alert would be elimination of the 3-day-per-week 10-minute-per-station landscape sprinkling rule. There would be no effect on the relaxed restrictions that were made permanent by ordinance at the city council on Nov 9, 2010 (curiously the city’s press release on that ordinance was entitled “City strengthens water use restrictions“).

Councilmember Carl DeMaio almost derailed the whole discussion by trying to introduce changes to rules already contained in the city ordinance (he thought maybe we should allow landscape sprinklers to water every day but be limited to 10-minutes per day, among other ideas). Councilmember Sherri Lightner set him back on track by pointing out that making changes to the water ordinance can’t be proposed as part of this agenda item, it requires separate public noticing, etc.

Public Utilites Department assistant director Alex Ruiz pointed out that all other regional water agencies have or soon will have cancelled their own drought alerts and that it would be awkward for San Diego to not do the same.

Councilmember Lorie Zapf talked about the need to promote a “water ethic” in the community and the possibility that rescinding the drought declaration would be as good as signaling “all clear” and wipe out the progress made in getting residents to conserve water over the last few years. This was rich coming from the committee that just a few months ago voted against stronger Drought Level 2 restrictions being made permanent regardless of drought status (here’s my report on that mess).

In the end, the committee moved to send the drought alert cancellation to the city council and to pursue changes to the city ordinance separately. I see 10News already has a story out.


Posted in Politics, Water | Tagged: | 3 Comments »

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.


Posted in Politics, Water | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

San Diego water use ordinance on City Council agenda

Posted by George J Janczyn on November 4, 2010

[Updated on November 9]

San Diego City Councilperson Donna Frye’s proposal to enact a tougher water use ordinance is on the consent agenda for the City Council meeting this coming Tuesday, November 9. This proposed ordinance is a weakened version of Frye’s original proposal which was to make the City’s Drought Level 2 restrictions permanent.

The key feature of the current Drought Level 2 rule limits both the time of day as well as which 3 days and how many minutes each week residents may water their landscaping. Frye’s original proposal would have made those restrictions standard operating procedure (permanent) for the City.

After being endorsed by the Independent Rates Oversight Committee, the proposal then encountered strong political opposition that forced Frye to water down the proposal before it went to the Natural Resources and Culture Committee. The result: the key three-days-per-week/minutes per day watering restriction will not apply when there’s no declared emergency. That restriction will be made only when a Drought Level 2 declaration is in effect. You can see how it changed by comparing both versions of the proposal in this report I wrote last September.

The weaker restriction, that watering won’t be permitted during the hottest times of the day, did not encounter as much opposition and remains in the default permanent rules section of the proposed ordinance.

The removal of the stronger permanent restriction is probably why the proposal made it to the consent agenda where the assumption is that it will pass with little or no debate. [Nov 9 update: sure enough, the Council passed the item without debate; Councilperson DeMaio called it necessary “behavior modification” and Emerald praised the Apt. Association for help in promoting it]

Unfortunately the introduction to the ordinance in Tuesday’s City Council Docket (item #58) doesn’t accurately describe the changed proposal. Apparently written for the original proposal, the intro still says “This ordinance makes Drought Response Level 2 water use restrictions which are currently temporary, permanent….” That’s likely just an editing oversight, but for the casual reader it will create the impression that the ordinance is stronger than it is. The fact is that under this ordinance the City Council can still vote to end the Level 2 emergency declaration, and they likely will when the County Water Authority eventually rolls back its drought alert

[Nov 9: The press is writing headlines based on the incorrect docket description and is reporting Level 2 restrictions as permanent. As for the eventual rollback of Level 2 restrictions, here’s the beginning of the process where MWD removes restrictions, then the County Water Authority removes the drought level alert, and finally the City removes the Level 2 alert]


Posted in Politics, Water | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Navajo Community Planners agenda for Oct 18

Posted by George J Janczyn on October 9, 2010

[Revised Oct 15, 2010]


Posted in Government, Politics | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

San Diego IPR Coalition sends message to City Council in support of water reuse project continuation

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 24, 2010

This is a letter sent to the San Diego City Council in support of an advanced water treatment plant needed for the Water Purification Demonstration Project approved years ago but threatened by Councilmembers who would like to see the project killed. A vote on the plant is scheduled for the July 27, 2010 meeting of the San Diego City Council.

The Indirect Potable Reuse Coalition (IPR Coalition) was formed in late 2009 to perform public outreach and advocacy for the Indirect Potable Reuse process (to purify reclaimed water) as a component of San Diego’s drinking water supply.


Posted in Indirect potable reuse, Politics, Water | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

San Diego Rates Oversight Committee endorses continued water use restrictions

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 19, 2010

The San Diego Independent Rates Oversight Committee (IROC) today voted to express support and encouragement for City Councilmember Donna Frye’s proposal to make the city’s drought-level water use restrictions permanent. The restrictions were mandated last year due to the city’s precarious water supply situation exacerbated by California’s extended drought.

Several committee members pointed out that local or regional drought has little to do with the city’s tight water supply, because our supply is not greatly affected by local conditions but because of conditions (and not only drought-related) in the entire western region that we import from. So, while expressing support for the proposal, they suggested that it would be better to avoid using the word “drought” when considering the restrictions and recognize that the need to more strictly conserve is an ongoing fact of life.

Frye agreed, saying that San Diego should permanently change its water consumption behavior to reflect the reality of the water supply situation, not conserve only under certain circumstances. Water conservation, she pointed out, is the single most cost-effective way for the city to deal with the problem.

Other points made during the discussion:

  • Alex Ruiz, SD Water Dept. director, said that about 60% of the city’s water use goes toward outdoor irrigation.
  • Donna Frye said she will continue to encourage dialogues, hold workshops, and engage citizen groups to further study the issue. She expects to put the proposed ordinance before the City Council by October.
  • Committee member Don Billings wondered if the restrictions should apply to customers using reclaimed water. The consensus was that they should. He also said cost and enforcement issues should be examined, and that tiered pricing to promote conservation is desirable.
  • Committee member Todd Webster said he didn’t like the technique of specifically mandating specific times and days that watering is permitted.
  • Committee member Jack Kubota expressed dismay that recycled water customers seem to think they should be able to use as much as they want, commenting how incongruous it is to visit Palm Springs and see lush lawns, gardens, and fountain displays everywhere. He also noted that residents who live in areas that overlap with other water districts might chafe with different rules for nearby neighbors (Olivenhain, for example, is rescinding its water use restrictions).
  • Chairman Jim Peugh wondered if the permanent restrictions might make it more difficult for the city to impose further restrictions in the future if things get tighter again.

In other news from the committee:

  • The contract for the advanced treatment facility for the Water Purification Demonstration Project (IPR Project) will be on the City Council Docket for October 27th.
  • Alex Ruiz speculated that San Diego’s 5% increase in water use for the month of June 2010 vs. June 2009 might be because June 2009 was the first month for the drought restrictions and people were inundated with publicity about it.
  • The city has had 126 water main breaks in the 2010 calendar year, 9 since June 9, at an average cost of $15,900 per break. There was some discussion about how events are studied post-mortem to improve future preventive measures.
  • There were 21 sewer spills so far this calendar year, and most were grease- and root-related. The majority of grease-related spills occur in residential neighborhoods, not in restaurant-heavy zones, which suggests a need for better residential outreach about grease down the kitchen sink drain.
  • Ex-officio member Ken Williams (San Diego County Water Authority) noted the upcoming SDCWA meeting on Thursday will consider the possible purchase of Poseidon’s desalinated water. He pointed out that the vote on Thursday is on the question to move forward with the idea. A following meeting would vote on a contract. The oversight committee agreed that this proposal should be watched and would like to invite SDCWA to make a presentation to the committee in the near future. One area of interest was how the treated desal water would be mixed with untreated SDCWA supplies, and what effect the purchase would have on City of San Diego ratepayers. Several expressed surprise that the Mayor and City Council have not spoken about the issue.

Water Conservation Data for San Diego FY 2010 Results

Customer Group FY 2010 vs. FY 2009
Residential -10.7%
— Single Family -13.6%
— Multi Family -5.3%
Commercial/Industrial -7.5%
Irrigation -20.4%
City Government -10.9%
Overall Citywide -11.0%


Single-month conservation comparing June 2010 vs. June 2009

Citywide +5.1%
Residential +2.9%
— Single Family -2.1%
— Multi Family +14.7%
Commercial/Industrial +6.1%
Irrigation only +10.3%
City Govt +11.3%


Posted in Politics, Water, Water conservation | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Which San Diego politicians really support water recycling?

Posted by George J Janczyn on July 1, 2010

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders just yesterday announced a new recycled water hookup with Canyonside Park for landscaping irrigation (see video of announcement).

In his speech, Mayor Sanders proclaimed “Finding more uses for recycled water is an important way to maximize resources.”

Councilmember Sherri Lightner also spoke, saying “I have always and will continue to support the expansion of recycled water in San Diego as a smart reuse of water and as a water conservation measure.”

Was this really a sign of wholehearted support for water reuse, or was it just lip service?

That item should hardly be making the news. It belatedly brings the City a little closer to compliance with a 1989 City ordinance mandating the widespread use of recycled water. It’s a good, but modest project using only 13 million gallons of recycled water per year.

On the other hand, a few Councilmembers (probably with the Mayor’s secret blessings) actively resist implementation of a water reuse project that could produce an additional 16 million gallons of potable water per day, a project that was approved by the full Council years ago.

Quick history:

  • On October 29, 2007, after considerable debate and public discussion, the City Council voted to approve the Indirect Potable Reuse Demonstration Project.
  • On November 14, 2007, Mayor Sanders vetoed the resolution.
  • On December 3, 2007, the City Council voted to override the Mayor’s veto and directed him to develop a plan to begin the potable reuse demonstration project by July 2008.
  • On November 18, 2008, the City Council approved a temporary water rate increase to fully fund the Demonstration Project.
  • In May 2009, the Public Utilities Department issued a Request for Proposals for Project Management and Public Outreach for the project.
  • On Jan. 26, 2010, the San Diego City Council directed the Mayor to execute “an Agreement between the City of San Diego and RMC Water and Environment, to perform the Project Management and Public Outreach for the Demonstration Project.

In summary: the City got so far as to approve the Indirect Potable Reuse Reservoir Augmentation Demonstration Project (aka Water Purification Demonstration Project), then approved a contract for project management and public outreach, and the next step was to approve a contract to build the facility to treat the water. How did that go?

Two weeks ago, at the June 16 Natural Resources and Culture Committee meeting, the contract to build the facility was blocked from going to the full Council because Councilmembers Sherri Lightner and Carl DeMaio still had objections to the basic premise of the project and they forced a continuation of the matter saying they needed answers to more questions.

Today, the Natural Resources and Culture Committee held a special followup meeting to address those questions.

Lightner, for all her earlier interest in continuing the matter so that her questions could be answered, didn’t even show up for the meeting. That left DeMaio. Marti Emerald quickly made the motion to recommend council approval (Donna Frye obviously would vote yes). DeMaio didn’t bother asking questions and only reiterated that he remains steadfastly opposed to the project and would not vote for the committee to recommend approval of the contract. So the vote was taken and that’s how the matter will be sent to the Council.

We’re obviously dealing with foot-dragging by disgruntled politicians intent on hindering an already-approved project.

Please, it’s time to move on.


Posted in Environment, Politics, Water, Water Purification Demonstration Project | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a 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 »