Why Do City Officials Want To Raise Water Rates Again?
Editors note: Bob Kittle stated that purifying sewage for drinking water was more expensive than desalination or reclaimed non-potable water. That statement was incorrect. For more details, go to voiceofsandiego.org.
ALISON ST JOHN (Host): And you’re back on the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS. I’m Alison St John in for Gloria Penner. And with me today is Andrew Donohue, editor of voiceofsandiego.org, JW August, managing editor of 10News, and Bob Kittle, director of News Planning and Content for KUSI. And we’re going to talk about water now, and water rates specifically. Water, or the lack of it, you know, just might be one of the most important issues that we’re facing here at the end of the pipeline in San Diego, and most of us seem to be conserving but are we being rewarded with lower water rates? No. In fact, the City of San Diego, like cities around the county, is talking about raising water rates again. So, JW, what’s the reason for this?
JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, 10News): Because the cost of the water itself, they say, is going up. So they get the water from the Metropolitan Water District, based in Los Angeles. A number of different counties and municipalities belong to it, as we do. And they pass it along to county water authority and the county water authority is passing it, the hike, the water hike, on to all the agencies in the community that belong to the county water authority. There’s 24 of them, I believe.
ST JOHN: Right, so I think the people – the reason a lot of people are kind of a bit…
ST JOHN: …hot under the collar about this is that it – they already raised the rates three years ago for four years, and then this one is coming before the four years are even up. It seems a little unexpected.
AUGUST: Well, here’s that – this is what they’re telling us. The – that this is only going to be the pass-through of the cost of the water going up. The money they – the rates they got, the raises, three or four years ago is for our miserable infrastructure with the pipes breaking down on, you know, Mission Bay, you can’t get down to Mission Bay all day and that sort of thing. That was where all that money is supposed to go.
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
AUGUST: And, of course, Carl DeMaio doesn’t believe any of it but that’s the big picture.
ST JOHN: So Carl DeMaio is saying, hey, it’s not all just about infrastructure and providing more water sources. What’s he saying?
AUGUST: He is suspicious that they may be using this money for other things like salaries, bonuses. But, you know, and it’s been my experience with the water department in San Diego that they are fully capable of playing hide the pea under the walnut, which is, you know, you look under one walnut and the pea’s not there, and you look under another walnut, there it is. They have done that in the past. But let’s give them a break here. I’m going to try to believe them on this particular case.
ST JOHN: Okay, so now the water districts have kind of flown under the radar, you know, when we’ve been looking at public agencies because of the barrel (?) scandal. We haven’t heard very much about water districts, have we? I mean, do you think this might be the water district’s sort of Belk (?) Mountains?
ANDREW DONOHUE (Editor, voiceofsandiego.org): Well, I – I think…
ST JOHN: Andrew.
DONAHUE: …actually, I mean, if you look at it over the long term, the cost of water is going up. I mean, there’s no doubt about that, so, sure, some of that’s going to be – some of anything we pay for – in the public sphere’s going to be going to salaries and pensions and that sort of thing. But in the long haul, we are – basically live in a desert and we need to ship a whole lot of water to San Diego to drink, to shower, to make our yards green and to do all that sort of stuff. And there’s no – Basically, there’s no more cheap water. There were, long before this, plenty of estimates that our water prices were going to double in 2018, so this is all a result of us having to build more infrastructure. The typical sources that we rely on, the delta up in Northern California and the Colorado, are much more strained than they were and it’s going to be harder and harder for us to get water.
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
DONAHUE: That’s why we’re having to spend to desalinate ocean water. We’re having to spend to try to recycle our sewage here in San Diego. So this is very much at the heart of our entire existence here in San Diego, which is we need to bring in water and that’s expensive.
ST JOHN: So 888-895-5727 is the number. Where do you stand on the rate increases? Do you trust what we’re being told? And do you see that that is an important part of, as Andrew said, surviving here? So now, Bob, you know, what – where do you stand on what we’re being told?
BOB KITTLE (Director, News Planning and Content, KUSI): Well…
ST JOHN: Do you feel like it’s justifiable?
KITTLE: Well, certainly the basic economic problem is this: even if you reduce your water consumption, you still need the same robust water infrastructure. And that means, sadly, that you can reduce your water consumption and wind up paying more to support that infrastructure. But our water policy in San Diego is incoherent in many ways, and I’ll cite two quickly. One is that we, each year, recover, reclaim, that is, about 20,000 acre feet of water that we dump into the Pacific Ocean. It costs a lot of money to take sewage water and reclaim it for irrigation use. But we haven’t built the purple pipes to use this. This is the North City Reclamation Plant.
ST JOHN: The one you see driving up 5.
KITTLE: That’s right. And in a wet year like we’ve just had, more or less a normal year, that plant generates 20,000 acre feet of water. That’s enough for the entire city of Escondido. And that water is dumped into the Pacific after we pay to reclaim it because we haven’t built the purple pipes to use it for irrigation.
ST JOHN: Well, but what would you say if the City said we could put in the purple pipes but that would cost you more in water rates.
KITTLE: Well, certainly it would make more sense in the long term to save that 20,000 acre feet of water that we’re already paying to reclaim. So let’s extend the purple pipes. But, secondly, and another aspect of this is we’re spending, I think, it’s $12 million for a pilot project to take sewage water and clean it enough to put it into reservoirs, the so-called toilet to tap project.
KITTLE: Now, that water is three to four times as expensive as anything else. Desalinated water has – has gotten cheaper because they’ve improved the technology for taking the salt out of the water. To be spending that kind of money for water that we’ll never use on a wide scale, I think, is folly.
ST JOHN: I’m surprised that you would say that San Diego would never use it on a wide scale when Orange County is already using that kind of water on a wide scale.
KITTLE: Well, they – they’re taking what – The reclaimed water that they have, they are pumping back into the underground aquifer because they have an aquifer.
ST JOHN: Right.
KITTLE: It’s a little different situation. I say it will never be used on a wide scale in San Diego because it is way too expensive. We can create more water through desalination and through reclamation at a far cheaper cost than the toilet to tap project. It’s economically unviable, in my view.
ST JOHN: 888-895-5727, if you’d like to join the Editors Roundtable. And, JW, you’re nodding. We’re getting into a discussion here about whether recycling or reclamation is the way to go.
AUGUST: Well, I agree with Bob that toilet to tap, this is the third – second or third resurrection of that program and I don’t think it’s going to fly. It’s too expensive but – And I do agree with Andrew that, you know, we live in an arid area but I do have problems with the efficiencies of government in this case. We have to go through two – before it goes into your faucet, it’s three water – different water entities that handle it. All of those entities have bureaucrats. They got people that work in the accounting room, they got people that clean the floors, they have to pay for lights. There is, by its nature, it’s very inefficient the way the water – the whole water system in California has evolved over the years, and it’s done that because – It’s like herding cats. When you’re dealing with water, water’s our life blood. People have killed each other over water. And that this infrastructure that’s grown up, just on the administrative side that is unwieldy.
ST JOHN: However, I want to throw this out, you know, Carl DeMaio is a proponent of privatizing city services and there is evidence that privatizing water services is not such a good idea. In the past, there’ve been cities that have tried it and because it’s been run on a profit motive, public health is not the first priority. What do you think about the sort of – the logical conclusion of Carl DeMaio’s arguments, that these public services are not being run efficiently enough.
DONAHUE: Well, I don’t doubt that they’re not being run efficiently enough but I don’t think that’s the larger issue here.
ST JOHN: Privatizing – privatizing city water, you mean.
DONAHUE: Yeah, I don’t – but there’s a lot more things that are on the table to privatize before they would ever get to water so I don’t know that that’s anything that’s on the agenda…
ST JOHN: To worry about, okay.
DONAHUE: …but I would say actually to Bob’s point, I think in the long run it is actually estimated that the sewage recycling or what you would refer to as toilet to tap is going to be cheaper than both purple pipe and desalination. So in the long term, it has, in my mind, a lot of hope here in San Diego.
ST JOHN: Let’s talk to Alice from Mission Hills. Thanks for joining the Editors Roundtable. Alice, go ahead.
ALICE (Caller, Mission Hills): Good morning, Alison, gentlemen. Thank you so much for taking my call. I just had a quick comment and I’m sure it’s been brought up somewhere before. The utilities, local, SDG&E and the water, they ask us to conserve, they ask us to cut back and we do, and the rates go up. And the simple reason is because they’re not raking in enough profits. Yes, they provide a service to us which we desperately need but these are for-profit services and so if we use less, they’re going to charge us more so that they still make their profit. And I’ll listen off the air. Thank you.
ST JOHN: Okay, thanks for that comment, Alice. I don’t know about profit motives so much as sort of covering their costs but what do you have to say about that, gentlemen, about this idea that actually the less we use, the, you know, the more we’re going to have to pay?
KITTLE: Just to explain it a bit, SDG&E is, you know, a controlled monopoly. It is a profit-making entity. But that’s entirely different.
ST JOHN: From water.
KITTLE: That’s your electric bill and gas bill. But the water situation is not – is a totally government…
ST JOHN: That’s right.
KITTLE: …controlled system, so there isn’t a profit motive there. But, again, it’s the basic economy equation that even if you cut your water consumption by 14%, you still have to have this large infrastructure that you had before, so you wind up paying more per unit of the water to support the fixed cost of the infrastructure.
ST JOHN: That just is the reality of the situation. Now Lucy is on the line from Grossmont and you’re not happy with this, are you?
LUCY (Caller, Grossmont): Hi there. Thanks so much for taking my call. What I want to share is because I’ve lived in San Diego forever and I think that we are totally being held hostage and sold a bill of goods. And I did an experiment with my own property. I own half of an acre in Encanto and I decided to try reducing my overall total water consumption and I applied very specific basic practices. I am one person in my home and I have just one single family dwelling. And I cannot get my water bill down below basically $89.00, and it’s because of the sewer, the charges. My water cost is $6.00, six dollars. I have reduced my water consumption to $6.00. I use about one-third of the amount that one person normally uses but my bill cannot get down below $89.00. So I am sorry, I think we’re just being held hostage. Also, I had talked to people at San Diego Gas & Electric about why they didn’t use more solar energy and I was actually told by a San Diego Gas & Electric person that that would be – they wouldn’t be able to make enough profit. So…
ST JOHN: Well, Lucy, thanks for your comment there, and throwing in – We keep slipping sideways into electric bills as well. Bills just everywhere are going up, aren’t they? But Lucy’s point that actually—and congratulations on getting your water bill down to $8.00 (sic), that’s amazing. But that the sewer bills are actually the problem. We haven’t talked much about that. I mean, do you think that’s something that really needs a bit more analysis when we’re looking at rates?
AUGUST: Well, it’s certainly figured into it. Absolutely. The Sewage and Water Department, City of San Diego, they do…
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
AUGUST: It’s their job.
ST JOHN: Just before we leave this, JW, you have done a bit of research into the efficiency at the water department. Do you think Carl DeMaio’s allegations have any – have much basis?
AUGUST: I think there is some smoke there.
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
AUGUST: In my past stories I’ve done, I have found things that the water department has done. For instance, it was a way to get money to other departments who were short in their budget and so the water department would slide money from their department over to maybe the city attorney’s office.
ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.
AUGUST: And internally they covered that because the city attorney would bill them for services. But…
ST JOHN: And it is easier to raise…
ST JOHN: …rates than taxes.
AUGUST: Right, you can’t – It’s not taxes, it’s water rates.
ST JOHN: Right.
AUGUST: So, you know, the politicians are safe on that. Now I’m not saying they’re doing it now but they’ve done it in the past and I have problems with the culture of the water department.
ST JOHN: Okay. I will just mention that there is a citizens committee overseeing how those rates are raised and they are actually supporting this rate increase, so that’s one element of the argument.