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City Council Approves Increase In San Diego’s Water Rates

Photo by Andrew Bowen

The San Diego City Council listens to Halla Razak, director of public utilities, during a meeting, Nov. 17, 2015.

Water bills in San Diego will be getting more expensive next year after the City Council voted 7-2 to approve a rate increase.

After hearing two hours of public testimony, the San Diego City Council on Tuesday approved a series of five increases to water rates.

The vote was 7-2, with Councilmen David Alvarez and Scott Sherman opposed. The rate hike to customers starts at 9.8 percent beginning in January, with an additional 6.4 percent increase coming next July 1. The second increase is 0.5 percent less than originally proposed.

Council President Sherri Lightner said the rising cost of imported water meant San Diego had to invest in water autonomy projects, including the city's Pure Water recycling program. City staffers presented a host of dire consequences if the council rejected the rate increases.

"The future of our water supply and water infrastructure depends on this rate increase," Lightner said. "This is our opportunity to responsibly plan for our future."

The rate hike was highly contentious, largely because it was necessitated in part by state-mandated conservation. Most of the city's water costs are fixed, but most of its revenue depends on water sales. Reduced revenues because of conservation — coupled with rising costs from water wholesalers such as the San Diego County Water Authority — has created a "perfect storm," said Halla Razak, director of the city's Public Utilities Department.

Alvarez said it was unfair to raise rates on water customers because they conserved water, and that wasteful water customers should be the ones to pay more.

"Those who conserve the most and whose usage most closely reflects the local water sources available should not help subsidize customers who refuse to conserve," he said.

San Diego resident Rosario Sanchez spoke to the council in Spanish. She said despite working two minimum-wage jobs, she could not afford to pay her water bill, leading the city to shut off her water this past summer.

"Without water my children couldn't bathe, and they couldn't flush the toilet," she said through an interpreter. "It is not healthy when you can't flush the toilet, nor wash your hands afterward."

The City Council also voted to maintain a unitary rate for so-called "purple pipe" recycled water, which can be used for industrial use or irrigation but not drinking. Civic and business leaders from Chula Vista and other South County communities supported a zoned rate, which would have seen them paying significantly less for recycled water.

Supporters of the zoned rate said delivery of recycled water from the South Bay Water Reclamation Plant is cheaper than that of the North City Water Reclamation Plant. City staff recommended against the zoned rate, saying it would have resulted in a significant increase for most recycled water customers, and that unitary rates are common practice in California.

A residential customer whose monthly bill is now around $36 will see it rise to just over $39, according to a city report. Customers now paying $71 will see their bills go above $77.

San Diego is far from alone in its water dilemma. Infrastructure needs and conservation have forced utility departments from Los Angeles to Sacramento to ask for steep, politically unpopular rate increases.

City News Service contributed to this report.

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