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San Diego Water Rates Are High, Is There Any Good News?

Aired 5/31/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

San Diegans are stuck with high water rates, and not much can be done about it. That's according to a San Diego County Grand Jury report released today. We'll find out if there's any good news.

The San Diego County Water Authority has been upgrading its existing water storage facilities in an effort to decrease reliance on the Metropolitan Water Authority.  This photo from November 2009 shows  construction at the San Vicente Dam to remove the right crest of the dam to increase the size of the reservoir.
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Above: The San Diego County Water Authority has been upgrading its existing water storage facilities in an effort to decrease reliance on the Metropolitan Water Authority. This photo from November 2009 shows construction at the San Vicente Dam to remove the right crest of the dam to increase the size of the reservoir.

Where ever you live in San Diego County, you've seen your water rates go up, not just once, probably but several times in the last couple of years.

Officials praise us for conserving more even than they asked us to but then they slap on higher water rates. It seems counter intuitive that the less we use of something, the more we have to pay. There have been plenty of complaints and the civil grand jury got a bunch of them. They decided to investigate.

Guest

Richard Carlson, foreman, San Diego County Grand Jury.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: San Diego's civil grand jury heard so many complaints about rising water rate, they decided to investigate. And later this hour, the late of the reports suggest a double dip in home prices, but locals say San Diego is ahead of the trend. This is KPBS Midday Edition. It's Tuesday, May thirst, I'm Alison St. John in for Maureen Cavanaugh. Wherever you look in San Diego County, there are water rate increases, not just once but probably several times you've seen them in the past couple of years. Officials' praises for conserving water, even more than they asked us to, but then they slap on higher water rates. There have been plenty of complaints, and will civil grand jury got a bunch of them, so they decided to investigate. Here with us in studio is the foreman, grand jury foreman, the county Grand Jury, Richard Carlson. Thanks for coming in.

CARLSON: Thanks for having us.

ST. JOHN: So tell us about some of these complaints that prompted this investigation.

CARLSON: The complaints -- always the water rates have been in the news a lot. And we wanted to look at what were some of the contributing factors. So it was a pretty extensive investigation that we did.

ST. JOHN: So how many people did you talk to?

CARLSON: Well, I can't give you an exact number of people because we -- the secret with the grand jury, we don't talk about the names of the people we talk to or how many witnesses we talk to.

ST. JOHN: But we need to know who you talked to. Was it the water agencies?

CARLSON: Well, we took tours of the water departments, we studied statistics and reports, and we also talked to people who were in the know.

ST. JOHN: People who were in the know. Okay. So you're keeping your sources confidential. But tell us about your findings then. Did you find that the water rates are justifiable?

CARLSON: Well, I don't know about justifiable. We did find there were a lot of contributing factors to the rates. We have so many outside sources that are contributing to it. We have to have water come in through a certain canal. It's purchased from a certain part of town -- I mean a certain part of the kitchen. Rates are set by the met district.

ST. JOHN: Metropolitan and Los Angeles, right?

CARLSON: Absolutely. And then we actually get water also from the Colorado River, but we still have to get it here. So it becomes a conveyance, and then you've gotta pay for the conveyances of the water, even if you own it from a different source.

ST. JOHN: So must have learned a great deal about how water is brought to San Diego. Do you feel like San Diegans understand enough how water gets to their tap?

CARLSON: I don't think they do. You knows, the county water authority is trying to provide some sources, there's no reservoirs being built, they're looking at desalination off the coast. But inn fortunately with all of these new sources comes cost. And the cost, I think that's what the consumer doesn't understand, you start from the water source, you go to the met, or you go to the Colorado river, and all of that has to get here, it has to be sources to get here, and then we have to store it once it gets here, and once we store it, all those facilities that store at this time water or make us new water cost money. And so obviously the costs are gonna be conveyed to the taxpayer.

ST. JOHN: What were some of the things that you discovered that was costing money that really justify these rate increases?

CARLSON: Well, there's the cost. Obviously we had a drought, which limited the water. And fortunately then we had a nice rain season, and that brought us more water and helped out in that area. We have a lot of new construction that's going on. There's a new reservoir that was built up in North County on the other side of lake Hodges, and that's gonna be a big benefit. A lot of these things are costing money, they're gonna benefit the taxpayers, but it's gonna be quite a ways down the road. Or the consumer, I should say. It's gonna be quite a ways down the road before they receive the benefits.

ST. JOHN: Like for example, the San Jacinto reservoir, or did you take tours of the some of the major infrastructures that are being built around the county?

CARLSON: Yes, the grand jury did. They went out and looked at some of these sources, I didn't go to all of them. But they did. And it was a very interesting process because I don't think that the average consumer understands that the water doesn't just come down the river, and we don't syphon it off. It has a whole series of processes that it goes through before it gets here.

ST. JOHN: Well, it's not these processes, it's also water agencies, isn't if? Were you surprised by how many water agencies there were in San Diego County?

CARLSON: Well, I kind knew, but I think the grand jury was pretty surprised when they looked at all these different agencies, And how they call come together, and each one is a cost factor.

ST. JOHN: Some people are saying that we need fewer water agencies. Was that something you addressed in your report?

CARLSON: Well, I think that's something -- we don't have control over anything for, you know, as far as an investigation from anything above the county level. So we made information available, but we can't look at those sources. So -- and they're alls in sources to get the water here to San Diego. So I think that's something that we're basically stuck with.

ST. JOHN: So now it sounds a little bad news for the people who are complaining. You're basically concluding that there's no hope on the horizon, that this won't just keep going upon. Is there any good news that you found in your investigation?

CARLSON: Well, I think that the best part is that the county water authority is in fact going forward with projects that are gonna let us have a water source in years to come. And that's really important to us. Without water we've got a serious problem. But they're looking for ways, and maybe in the future, there could be ways to bring down those costs, hopefully, and I would hope that the taxpayers and the consumers that they continue to look at what's going on and to scrutinize it.

ST. JOHN: So there are in fact committees, for example, to look at how the water rates go up the City of San Diego, they are a committee, for example. And I know that they are usually saying, hey, it's time you woke up and realize that these rates are just gonna keep ongoing on. It's just part of where we live in Southern California. Is that pretty much what you concluded also, that really if we were more aware of the water situation, we would not be complaining so much about the rates?

CARLSON: Well, I think it would help us at least to understand. And one of the important issues, it would be nice if somehow the consumer, if they worked hard to conserve the water that's available and they did this in their daily lives, it just seems like there are should be some kind of a reward for the consumer. There are rewards for agencies and things that save on the water. So why not pass that on to the consumer at some point in time if it could be done?

ST. JOHN did you have any suggestions of how that might be done?

CARLSON: Well, it could be a cash voucher kind of thing. It could be, you know, I think they've tried to do things over the years where they come down with the no cost low flow toilets and things like that that's been passed onto the consumer. But it would be nice if at some point in time the dollar could go in the consumer's pocket.

ST. JOHN: So do you feel like you addressed the complaints that came to the grand jury? What basically is the message that you would give to people from the result of -- how long was it? This investigation took most of the year.

CARLSON: Well, it took a good part of the year. But I think people should be aware that the rates are probably gonna continue to go up. We need to have the water. If you don't understand part of the process, I think it's an education thing on the part of the consumer. They should find out a little bit more about the process, and hopefully we're gonna have some good situations take place here in San Diego.

ST. JOHN: We always get calls when we talk about water here. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Ken is on the line from Valley Center, thanks for calling, Ken. Go ahead.

NEW SPEAKER: Yeah, one thing I wanted to say was -- and I made the mistake too. We always complain that our water bill's too high, but if we stop and read the bill, the actual water itself is one of the cheaper components of the whole thing. It seems here in North County, the waste water change and all that are the high points. And I for one, I don't want to spend more money, but we need to keep the water rates up or raise them so we can keep agriculture and industry. And the homeowners like myself need to quit Putin in Hawaiian gardens in a desert region. Okay their.

ST. JOHN: Okay, thank you, Ken. I guess one of the points that he's making is that by having high water rates, that is making us more aware of our water use and saving water, helping conservation, so that the high water rates are actually serving a good purpose.

CARLSON: Absolutely. It's unfortunate that that's the way it is. But it is incumbent on all of us to look at how we use the water and to actually try and save on the water. But hike he said it would be nice in the individuals that are doing could somehow be rewarded for that.

ST. JOHN: Right. So far we're being very positive about the rate increase and all that, but there are some people who dispute our county water authority buys water from, that they are not giving us a fair deal. Did you have anything in your report on that issue?

CARLSON: We mention that issue in our report, and I would encourage anyone to go to the San Diego County grand jury reports, and read the entire report so they can understand the whole thing. But they -- I lost my train of thought for a second.

ST. JOHN: So the metropolitan water district, they say they have to charge us what they're charging us. Which is the main reason our rates go up.

CARLSON: The lawsuit. The lawsuit is still in progress. So until that's resolved then it's still gonna be a major issue. But there were some issues that were addressed in the report itself. And until those issues are resolved, then I don't think we're gonna get, you know, any satisfaction out of it.

ST. JOHN: I believe you're suggesting that really San Diego needs better representation on the body to get some of its interests heard.

CARLSON: Yeah, I believe there's 24 people on the board, and four of them are from San Diego.

ST. JOHN: And being at the end of the pipeline always seems like we get squeezed for the last drop there, dont' we? What about ways of increasing water supplies? Are you in favor of desalination or water reclamation? There's quite a bit controversy about those two methods also.

CARLSON: I would think that anybody would encourage any way we can get more water for San Diego County would be a great thing. In fact, I don't know if people remember, at one time, we did have a water desalination plant here that is still functioning at Guantanamo bay. They disassembled that plant out off of La Jolla I think back in the 60s and took it there.

ST. JOHN: Is that right? Good heavens. I didn't know that piece of history. That's kind of interesting. Now, of course there's talk about desal perhaps up in Carlsbad, and other places along the coast. So you're not distinguishing between those two, because some people say water reclamation is not politically popular. As far as the grand jury is concerned --

CARLSON: Well, I don't think there was an opinion one way or the other, other than just to get us more water, and however they had to do it. And it could be used for other sources, it could be used for watering and irrigation or whatever, and then leave the drinking water --

ST. JOHN: Right. Then of course you need the purple pipes. It's just another expense, isn't it? Now just before you joined us, you were telling me about some legislation. In the minute we have left, just tell us about this legislation because it has just been introduced last week at the state level that would affect civil grand juries like yours.

CARLSON: Well, there's the assembly is just authored and passed a bill through a committee which will attempt to limit the power of the grand jury, which will make the grand jury proceedings public. And if they did that, they would basically harm the grand jury because people would not want to come forward and be identified, and now they have anonymity. And it would jeopardize their careers and their futures should this go through.

ST. JOHN: I see, so you're the only public face on the grand jury at the moment. And the rest of them were all anonymous?

CARLSON: Yes.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. Okay.

CARLSON: Well, people can find out who's on the grand jury, it's we protect the witnesses and --

ST. JOHN: Oh, I see. The people you're speaking to.

CARLSON: And the people we interview. Because we never want to identify anyone in particular on the grand jury.

ST. JOHN: I see. On the other hand, you can see the argument that perhaps people like to get where you found your information, so that's a tough issue isn't it?

CARLSON: Yes, absolutely. Well, most of the -- names are not in the reports, but the information actually comes out, and it's based on fact.

ST. JOHN: Do you know when that's going to be voted on?

CARLSON: No, I don't.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Interesting. Anyway, thank you very much. We've been speaking with Richard Carl son who is the foreman of the San Diego County grand jury this year. Thank you so much.

CARLSON: Thanks for having me.

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