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Rising Water Costs Prompt Two North County Communities To Look For Alternatives

Avocado trees being watered at a grove in Bonsall, June 3, 2021.

Photo by Guillermo Sevilla

Above: Avocado trees being watered at a grove in Bonsall, June 3, 2021.

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Two water agencies that serve the Fallbrook and Rainbow areas want to separate from the San Diego County Water Authority. They say they could get better rates elsewhere.

Aired: June 8, 2021 | Transcript

A water war is heating up in the North County.

Rainbow Municipal Water District and Fallbrook Public Utility District want to leave the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) because of rising costs. They want to join the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County, a move that could save their customers up to $5 million a year.

Listen to this story by Alexander Nguyen.

Tom Kennedy, Rainbow Municipal's general manager, said rates have been going up for years without any real benefits to customers.

"In North County, especially in Rainbow and Fallbrook, agriculture is our number one user of water," he said. "And its water costs has been a big topic for folks in that area."

RELATED: San Diego County Water Authority Board Approves Urban Water Management Plan

Folks such as Frank Wollam, a second-generation farmer who runs Wollam Grove Management, which manages hundreds of acres of avocados for various owners. Wollam said water is roughly 60 to 80% of his operating budget.

"I think it's our largest input cost," he said. "So any reduction there in that rate helps us stay more competitive and solvent."

Reported by Alexander Nguyen

Helping farmers stay in business is why Rainbow and Fallbrook filed the application in March 2020 to separate from the SDCWA in a process called detachment.

The decision on whether they can leave is up to the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), a little-known organization that acts as a regulatory body for public agencies. It essentially is a mediator for when public agencies have disagreements.

LAFCO has hired a consultant to weigh both sides of the issue and help it reach a decision. Though that decision isn't expected until the end of the year, Rainbow and Fallbrook have launched a public education campaign to get the word out.

At the center of the issue is fairness, they said. SDCWA has taken several steps in the past 30 years to increase its water supply, such as the Carlsbad Desalination Plant and the raising of the San Vicente Dam. Still, the argument is that those projects are too far south to benefit their customers.

"It's just not fair for us to continue to subsidize people down south," Kennedy said.

The SDCWA defended its rate increases, saying they were necessary to ensure water reliability in drought years, including those in the North County.

"While San Diego County ratepayers have been paying somewhat higher rates, it's because we can count on that water supply, especially in these drier years," said Kelley Gage, water resources director for SDCWA. "And those investments, of course, cost money."

RELATED: San Diego County Has ‘Sufficient’ Water Supplies Through 2045

In dry years, the SDCWA can draw water from its storage in the southern part of the system, and that frees up water from other sources "to meet the demands of the northern agencies," she said.

Gage said if the LAFCO board approves the detachment, the SDCWA will insist that Rainbow and Fallbrook pay for those investments.

"We have a series of debt obligations that were made over the last 30 years," she said. "So to walk away from that, we want to make sure that we're made whole and that the other 22 member agencies aren't paying the bill for Fallbrook and Rainbow, should they detach."

It's these additional costs that worry Wollam. He's for leaving if it means lowered water costs but not if it means having to pay an "exit fee."

RELATED: California’s Water Worries May Not Affect San Diego

"If it doesn't work out, how is that going to come back as far as legal fees and get transferred to the property owners and whatnot?" he said. "That's probably my primary concern. Other than that, where we get our water from is — we're not in a position to be that picky."

Even if LAFCO approves detachment, voters will still have the final say on leaving.

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