San Diego Water Rates To Increase In March
The San Diego City Council approved a plan this week to increase water rates starting in March. We discuss why water is costing more around the region, and what local leaders are doing to oppose rate hikes.
Ricky Young, watchdog editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune
David King, editor and founder of sandiegonewsroom.com
Scott Lewis, chief executive officer of voiceofsandiego.org
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: You are at the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS. I'm Alyson St. John in for Gloria Penner. Today, we're gonna wade into the controversy over water rate increases at the city. It seems like an inevitable trend but are some agencies hiding cost over runs onto the surface? Then will this be the year the housing market recovers in San Diego, when only four big cities of house prices are reaching up recently, and cities around the state are pulling out their big guns to try to start redevelopment agencies from being eliminated as part of the state bottoming. What does San Diego stand to gain or lose if Governor Brown has his way? So the editors with us today are Ricky Young, watch dog editor of the UT. Nice to see you Ricky.
YOUNG: Good morning, Allison. Nice to be here.
ST. JOHN: And David King, founder and editor of the online news site Sandiegonewsroom.com. Good to see you.
KING: Good to see you, Allison. Good morning.
ST. JOHN: And Scott Lewis, who is of course, the CEO of the online news source, VoiceofSanDiego.org. Always great to see you, Scott.
LEWIS: Thanks. It's a pleasure. Thank you.
ST. JOHN: So over here, if you have comments, our number is 1-888-895-5727. And remember, you can also post your comments on our website by going to KPBS.org/editors. Or you can send us tweets at KPBS these days. So let's get started here with water. This week, the San Diego City Council improved a six percent water inn crease to go into effect this spring, which doesn't sound like much, but when you look at all the water increases in the last three years, water bills have gone up almost 70 percent. So, Ricky, the city staff say this has nothing to do with them. Who does it have to do with?
YOUNG: Well, there's a cascade of people playing into your rising water rates, and it starts at the supply level, goes through the metropolitan water district of Southern California, which is a giant LA bureaucracy, from there onto the county water authority, and onto the city. And all along the way, they have a -- you know issue a bureaucracy to pay for, an infrastructure to pay for, and --
ST. JOHN: It seems like they're always passing it back up the pipeline, aren't they?
YOUNG: Well, or passing it down as the case may be. But certainly customers pay in the end. And they justify it miscellaneous ways for things they need to pay for. You know, but our Mike hey from the paper has done an interesting job of spelling out some of the problems with this approach. Which is sort of a comparison to preprop 13 local governments where they can just keep raising the rates of it's not like a tax increase where there's a vote of the people required. There is a sort of voting process that goes on, but it only counts people who protest the water rates and very few people actually file aid protest for whatever reason. So the rate increases almost always go through, and some of the critic, particularly of the MDW in LA say that the whole thing is set up like preprop 13 local governments where taxes just went up and up and up, it's the same thing going on with water ratings now, going up and up.
ST. JOHN: Well, let me just throw out a sort of devil's advocate question here, because throughout history, civilizations have come to an end because water has run out. Shouldn't San Diegans be prepared to pay a little more for this precious resource?
YOUNG: I suppose. Once again, referencing Mike Lee's coverage in our paper, what he's found is that some places instead of just raising rates, they could have the discipline of something like prop 13 instead of just raising costs. He demonstrated that the board members at the NWMD have spent $400,000 on travel and meals and things in the last couple of years. He laid out a billion dollars in projects that our county water authority thinking the NWD could do without in terms of infrastructure and some things like landscaping, visitor centers, marinas, at some of their reservoirs, where there's people who think that's some wasteful spending going on. Oh, sure, people might expect to pay more for water, but I think there's a water of how much more. Escondido just passed a water rate increase, they proposed a nine percent increase, and they at least lowered it to seven percent by asking their own water department to cut back on some excepts. San Diego has been famous criticized for a bonus water program for its water department that goes to 90 percent of the employees. Which he check may not be really a performance bonus unless they have, you know, a super star staff, which they may well, I don't know. But so there's a lot of discussion going on around the cost of water and how much of it is justified.
ST. JOHN: So Scott, you watch the city quite carefully, and they're one of the three agencies involved, we've got the city author territory, we've got the county water authority, and then we've got the Metropolitan Water Authority in Las Angeles as sort of the southern California water authority. Do you feel like you can point the finger at any one of those agencies more than another?
LEWIS: Well, you know, the metropolitan water district, if you ever get the opportunity to tour their facilities or something, or go out to Lake Havasu and watch how they bring the water, it's a fascinating thing. We have to bring so much water from so far away that they built -- he talked about a huge bureaucracy, it is an incredible agency, it may be one of the most powerful governmental entities in the United States. It's a gigantic entity, and of course it's gonna have the kinds of over runs and budgets that we would expect from something like that. But the issue -- the reason we don't vote on water rates in the same way, and the reason we're not given the same authority over them as a democratic body is because we need water. And if for some reason, the whims of the populous got to the point where it just didn't fund the agency, we can't sustain a society, like you said, without it. And I think if we have -- if we're upset about thing, we should be upset about two things. One is waste and issues like that, the same pensions that the city employees get in other parts of the city are what they get in this department, and they were never funded and they were never sustained 678 so we are funding them right now. And the other thing is water rates, I was talking to Scott Peters, the former counsel president of the City of San Diego. We did an investigation a few years ago on his water use because people records are available.
ST. JOHN: That's right.
LEWIS: Those public records are available for people who set water rates. And he was using a million gallons of water a year. And he cut it dramatically. And after that, he was very proud of that, talked about it, but he did get a cut in a very substantial, if any sort of major cut in his water bill because of that. And I think that's the kind of issue that we need to face. We've been demanding for years as a community in different nonprofits and others, let's really try to come up with an incentivized structure that gives you a benefit if you cut your water use that actually incentivizes water conservation. And the City was flirting with that and has yet to come up with a proposal. So those are things I think you should be upset with it.
ST. JOHN: So it's kind of all stick and no carrot at the moment with the rates.
LEWIS: Right, if we're gonna raise rates, let's do a comprehensive review of the rates themselves, incentivize conservation, and that way if you cut your water use, you might actually get an economic benefit proportionate to what you do.
ST. JOHN: So David, you there were 30000 people that sent in protest letters to the city against this particular rate hike, but apparently that was less than a tenth of all the people who got letters warning them that this hike was going to go up. Do you think that city residents are just resigned to seeing their rates go up, or do you think there's something wrong with the process.
KING: I think 13000 letters is a pretty high number of letters to get people to actually write in on an issue, that's something that happens there's something any time there's something a political wants to oppose, here, write your elected officials, write your city council members. Are citizens of San Diego resigned to it? I think citizens accept it. That's the reality. And they've seen this year after year after year that water rates go up. There is a measure of consumption, there is an ability to control how much you get and that's why -- pardon me, it's more like energy. And you get charged for it, and it's accounted for differently by the city. It's treated as an enterprise fund instead of an ordinary general fund type of accounting. So water is different. You take any function of government, and you're always gonna be able to point to waste, and you're gonna be able to point to corruption, and you're gonna be able to point to disputes and litigation between different government agency, but the reality is that we live in the desert, and we use too much water in inefficient ways, that we use entirely too much water on landscaped irrigation. And I'm no fan of seeing more, you know, citizens having to pay more money into the government for anything. But to the extent that increased water rates are gonna make people live in a more rational way with their water is a good thing.
ST. JOHN: So 1-888-895-5727 is the number to call. And with another rate increase make you perhaps more careful about how you use your water? What do you think about using rates as a way to really control water use? We've got a call here from Rancho Bernardo from Simon. Thanks for calling, Simon, go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Hi, thank you for taking my call. I just heard it, all the new water plants and how and how the water projects are so big. And last time I checked on the news, there's the water pipes breaking because of old age. And most of the infrastructures that are being used as an excuse, have been replaced forward a long while. For example that your jest mentioned, I think he's been there for at least 20, 30, year, I'm not sure. So all of a sudden, they're charging us for a new infrastructure that's been in place for many years, it just doesn't make sense.
ST. JOHN: So Ricky, what would you say? I mean, the city has said three years ago they passed a big rate increase for a new infrastructure, but as Simon says, there still seems to be problems of is there something not happening there?
YOUNG: Well, it's like all the infrastructure in our country, it's getting older, and all the governments are strapped and having a hard time paying for it. I would note, we had a story in this morning's paper saying that the county water authority called off 82-million dollars in infrastructure projects in part because of this issue that people are conserving water and so they're not planning on needing to handle as much of it. So they're kind of trying to set an example for what they think NWD should do. I did want to talk also about one other thing about the rate structure that I found interesting, which is there's this lawsuit going on, our county is suing NWD over the structure of the water rates. They believe NWD charges more than it should for transportation of water, and less than it should for supply of water. And thi results of a subsidy by us of the other agencies in the Southern California region. So we're paying more than we should for water, and LA and some of the other counties in the metropolitan water district area are paying less. And there's very little we can do about it because we only have four board members out of a board of 37. So they're suing over it. I don't know how successful that will be, but I think people in San Diego should know that they're paying this subsidy to the rest of Southern California.
LEWIS: Well, and I think that's the issue is, water, unlike oil, which is priced by the barrel, water is priced by what it takes to maintain that infrastructure. And like Ricky said, that was a fantastic insight. And that's what we face all around. We have to build these canals, we have to build all these pumps and line the canals and what not. And that's the cost that we end up paying and so there's no value put on the actual amount of water. And that's why the city water rates should be structured to actually value conservation or to punish over consumption and that sort of thing. Until we get to that, we're not gonna have a rationale policy. Except, that, like you said, I was very shocked with the figures that the mayor put out in the state of the assistant district attorney address, we went through a fact check, and it's true that the population has gone up tremendously, but the water use has gone down. And I think that's an impressive accomplishment, but it's gotta continue because the supplies are still threatened.
ST. JOHN: Well, it may seem that whatever happens, rates are gonna go up, water is gonna become a more expensive commodity here, but David, you made this interesting point about comparing it to SDG&E, and one thing I wondered is why is nobody suggesting that there be at least exemptions for people on fixed incomes? Because I heard people on City Council saying, you cannot do without water, but if you can't afford it, what are you gonna do? So why don't they started talking about exemptions like they do at SDG&E for people with electricity rates? Ricky?
YOUNG: Again, I don't mean to keep mentioning Mike Lee, but he's our main water guy, and he had a story that I found fascinating about this exact issue. The city provides water. Therefore it's not regulated by the PUC the way a private company would be. And some private companies that provide water are. So don't get the requirement for kind of discount for people who can't afford to pay water bills. So they've looked at it a number of times over the years, they've tried to figure out a way to provide something. But it's not required, ironically, the way it would be if a business were providing this service.
ST. JOHN: So have run out of time, even though this discussion could flow on and on. And we do have some more people on the line. But we'll be coming back right after the break with Ricky young, David King, Scott Lewis, here on the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS.
And you're back on the Editors Roundtable here on KPBS with our editors here talking around the table. Ricky Young with the UT, David King of the SanDiegoNewsroom.com, and Scott Lewis of VoiceofSanDiego.org. We're talking about water, and the phones are lit up of it's an important topic for all of us. So let's take another couple of calls here. Bianca is on the line. And Bianca, and you work for You Can; correct?
NEW SPEAKER: Yes.
ST. JOHN: So You Can is a consumer advocacy group, to let listeners know where you're coming from. Go ahead with your point.
NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to say that the rate increase has nothing to do with encouraging conservation or paying for the infrastructure to pay down its dent. It actually came in way under budget for its CIP budget.
ST. JOHN: CIP being the capital improvement?
NEW SPEAKER: Sorry, yes, the capital improvement, they have $60 million left over, and this goes out to their protection until 2013. If they really wanted to encourage conservation, they would change their rate structure, which actually encourages waste right now. There's only an eight percent difference between low water users and high water users when it's recommended there be a 50 percent difference between the rates that each tier pays so --
ST. JOHN: Yes, thank you for that point, Bianca, we've actually -- I know just got some callers here saying that the less they use, the more they pay. Let's take a call from Sarina here in San Diego. Go ahead and --
NEW SPEAKER: Thank you for taking my calling. Good morning, gem. I just wanted to make the comment that it appears politicians both city wide and county wide are both sides of their mouths, because they want us to conserve, and yet development they're begging for developers, IE, Miriam mountain in Escondido, all this mission valley to create new condos, new buildings. Where do they think that that water's gonna come from? We already import 90 percent of our water, and yet they want it to go into new homes, new condos, and I'll listen off the air. Thank you so much for your time.
ST. JOHN: Sarina, you bring up such a good point, because the fact is, SANDAG is predicting we're gonna grow by a million people in the next 30, 40 years. So that growth can't be stopped, but what are we gonna do about the water? Ricky do you want to --
YOUNG: I don't know as much about this, but my understanding is, and this seems a little hard to believe, that a lot of these develop developments are improved with an almost 0 net increase in water, through miscellaneous strategies to come up with innovative ways to do water supply and water treatment and this sort of thick. It may be possible, but I be, like, they might be asked to contribute to some water infrastructure elsewhere that creates use of these purple pipes the city uses to try to get irrigation water going those pipes instead of through the tap water pipes and that sort of thing. Scott might know more about that.
ST. JOHN: But I noticed that the supervisors this week just started talking about groundwater. Which relates to Sarina's question. Of and I think that's a big question. How much water is there out in the back country, and how much can the back country grow bearing in mind that they're not on the grid, they're not on the county water authority grid?
LEWIS: I'm not familiar with what might be able there. She says approximate they're talking out of both sides of their mouth, I think it's a pretty congruent, if you want to be cynical, one foods off the other. If nay do conserve, then they can allocate more water for more development. But there was a development at UTC, I'm trying to remember what it was, but they did make a big point about how it was water neutral.
YOUNG: I think it was just the expansion of west field up there.
LEWIS: Right, right. So that's a big issue, but the caller before that, from you can makes the point. Look, we should be outraged right now that we haven't come up with a rate structure that incentivizes conservation. And you should cut your water usage. If Scott Peters cuts his water usage by hundreds and thousands of gallons, that should show up somehow, and if he raises it that much, it should punish him that much of there should be a proportional -- it's a commodity. It's a value commodity. And we have to treat it that way.
ST. JOHN: Scott, I think you have got the final word there that rates are probably what's gonna motivate us. But let's use those rates in a way that really does motivate us rather than discourage us.
LEWIS: Right, and by not doing that, it's obvious that we're paying for debts that we need to take care of.