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Water Rates Don't Flow From Usage

Water Rates Don't Flow From Usage
We heard from the Governor that the drought is over. Does that mean we can go back to using water like we did before? Not so fast. We're also told conservation needs to become a way of life. But our water agencies aren't backing that message up with the water rates.

ALISON ST. JOHN: We heard from the Governor that the drought is over. Does that mean we can go back to using water like we did before? No. We're told water is a long term problem and conservation needs to become a way of life.

But our water agencies aren't backing that message up with the water rates. Our bills don't go down that much when we save - and there's a lingering suspicion they don't go up enough for people who are water hogs.

GUESTS: Ricky Young, Watchdog editor, San Diego Union Tribune


Andrew Donohue, editor,

Kent Davy, editor, North County Times

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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: So let's talk about water. We heard from the governor that the drought is over. But that does not mean that we can go back to using water like we did before. Weaver told water is a long-term problem, and conservation needs to become a way of life. But our water agencies don't seem to be backing that message up with the water rates. Our bills don't go down that much when we save, and there's a lingering suspicion that they don't go up enough for people who are water hogs. We'd like to hear from you on this, what is your experience? Have you managed toy are duce your rates by saving water? 1-888-895-5727 is the number here. So Ricky, the watchdog institute -- the watchdog report did a very good study on the different districts around the county. How much did they find that rates went down if people conserved?

YOUNG: Well, let me just quickly clarify. The Watch Dog Institute is separate from our watchdog --

ST. JOHN: Yes.


YOUNG: I know we caused some of that confusion.

ST. JOHN: The Watch Dog Institute is at the [CHECK].

YOUNG: Yes. So we got a lot of complaints from people. I'm saving water, but I'm not saving money. And we decided to kind of look at that in a comprehensive way. We went to all 23 water providers in the county and we looked at, you know, if you used the typical amount of water, how much would your bill be, and then what would happen if you cut your use by 50 percent, and what would happen if you used five times as much as the typical user? And what we found was that by saving 50 percent on your water, there's no way you're saving 50 percent on your bill, and he want can in the sweet water district in Chula Vista. Everywhere else, it was much less. Particularly in the north. If you're in the rainbow water district, you only save 21 percent on your bill if you cut back 50 percent on your water use. And then on the flip side, if you were using five times as much water as the regular user, [CHECK] see anything close it to a 400 percent increase in your bill. Except again in sweet water. Now, what this has to do with is how they apply their fixed cost. There's a certain portion of your bill, that's applied to equally to even. And the higher those fixed costs are, the les opportunity you have to affect your bill by saving water.

ST. JOHN: Let's take a call, if looks like this is something that people are interested in. And Frank is calling from San Diego. [CHECK].

NEW SPEAKER: Finally when I do manage to call in about the water, your guest here made my point. I don't understand why the fees can't be prorated per use. I'm tired of paying for other people's waste when they use the sewage system. If I don't use -- if I use one cube of water, I should only have to pay for the sewage services for that one cube of water. But I believe the reason it's done this way is so the companies who waste a lot of water can get a discount. So here I am, a single family, poor homeowner, having to pay welfare to the companies who waste the water and get discounts.

ST. JOHN: Okay, frank, thanks for making that point. I think you're speaking for a lot of people who have that question in their minds, that why is it that big water users, we're not necessarily judging that they're wasting, but they're using a lot of water, why do they have the right to get it cheaper? And what's the water agency's argument?

YOUNG: Well, there's a lot of value judgments involved in this. And it's hard to define, really, what's use and what's waste.

ST. JOHN: Yeah.

YOUNG: And the alternative to the caller subsidizing the big use ares is the big users subsidizing the people who save people. So the water districts don't tend to want to do that. They don't want to pit neighbors against each other. You might have a family of five living in one house next door to a family of -- you know, a single person living there. And so there might be good reasons for someone using more water. You can't necessarily hold them to the standard of the person next door who's living alone. So there's some fairness reasons involved there. And there's a sort of a also a feeling of this is just how it's always been done. And then there's also a risk involved. The more they allow bills to go down when people conserve, the more they're at risk they're not gonna have enough money to pay their bonds, to pay for their infrastructure, etc. So there's favorable explainable reason enforce this, but there is at least one agency, as I mentioned, sweet water, that has figured out a way where they think their increased charges to the bigger users will cover them in the event that there's a lot of conservation.

ST. JOHN: And there in lies like a basic conundrum, doesn't it? As we use less water, the agencies are selling less water, and so they have to cover their costs, right? Kent?

DAVY: Right, and that's been a particular problem in North County agencies. Because water rates went up, and you've got separate, much less or much lower rates for agricultural use, and a lot of that was interruptible use. So as farmers got hit with big water bill, they have stumped their trees, torn out citrus and are no longer using as much water. So there is water conservation going on, and these water -- a lot of these small water districts are saying we have to raise rates because we've got fixed costs that we have to pay. We have to pay for the infrastructure, the bonds, the pipes all the rest of it. So we don't have any choice.

ST. JOHN: 1-888-895-5727. We'd like to hear about you and your experience with your water bills, and Daniel is calling us from Clairemont. Daniel, thanks for joining us.

NEW SPEAKER: Hello. Thank you very much for the discussion, I think it's a very interesting and very needed topic. A few years ago, I contacted the then counsel member Frey of my district, and I said hey, there's a lot of road damage here, it seems to be leakage from this condo complex. Well, she sent he a letter saying okay, we'll have the road fixed, well, that didn't fix the leaking that [CHECK] two minor repairs of the radio, and it's still leaking and polluting. And this is the problem that we need to really focus on. Another thing that I've noticed too, is when I drive by construction sites issue a lot of times I see unmetered water being used. And I just don't understand why the big boys that make profit off of these things don't have to pay the same price in conservation and prices that we the regular user has to pay and the repair.

ST. JOHN: Daniel, thank you for that. I guess that's a point. Some people are actually making a profit off water. Isn't that an argument for perhaps charging them more for it?

DAVY: Yes. It certainly is.

ST. JOHN: All right, Daniel, your point is well taken. Let's talk to Bianca from San Diego who has also got a point to make. Thanks for calling us, Bianca.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi, I'm calling from UCAN, [CHECK] the American water works association recommends that the base fee only cover costs related to customer counts, meter reading, and meter servicing. And the City of San Diego especially includes costs way above that. And we've been pushing them to revise their whole rate structure, and we submitted a letter to City Council and the mayor, and this sort of revision could be done right now. The structure could be revised but the city insists on dragging its feet, and waiting a couple years until a cost of service study. But several consultants we have spoke with have insisted that this can be done right now.

ST. JOHN: And Bianca, just to be clear, what kind of cost [CHECK].

NEW SPEAKER: Low are the base fee to cover the costs that I mentioned and moving to Ia water allocation, like a water budget structure similar to several water district, Los Angeles, helix is proposing one, where every resident gets an allocation of water that would be their efficient use based on the number of people in their household, etc.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Interesting. Yes, and thank you, Bianca. And of course this is so complicated because it's wherever you live, you have a completely different water district. So there is no one structure throughout the region is there? Did you want to make a point there?

DONOHUE: [CHECK] the fairness issue that Ricky was talking about, is that if, you know, had, if I only live by myself, why do those people next to me get to use so much more water? Basically, what a place like Irvine ranch in Orange County does that's been sort of groundbreaking is these water budgets so they go to each house, and they say, okay, you have so many square feet of property, you have so many people living here, this is what the average water use would be for that, and so this is the amount of water you get. And if you go above that, then you start to pay incrementally more ask more money. And so that sort of tailors a water use to each house. Now, the city, she mentioned the City of San Diego have been dragging its feet, they have been sort of actively spreading misinformation about this sort of water budget, which is interesting. It's clear they don't want -- they either don't want to discuss it or they have some sort of problems with it, but they have been bringing up misinformation about how long it takes to put those into -- to actually enact something hike that. So it's clear the city sort of wants to stick with where it is.

ST. JOHN: Is that the property base allocation system? Is that -- 'cause I read that in your water dog article. It said it's catching on, is that what Bianca is talking about?

YOUNG: Yeah, it's where you get a budget based on your particular situation in terms of lot size, family size, etc.

ST. JOHN: Is there -- so what is the -- what do you think is the motivation not to go with something like that? Which sounds intuitively to be very fair?

YOUNG: You know, I'm not sure why the -- I mean, with anything with these rates, somebody ends up paying more if somebody else ends up paying less, and I'm sure there's amount of controversy there. It also seems like a lot of bureaucracy that would cost a lot of money to try and figure out, how many people have you got over there, and then you've gotta police that, to make sure people aren't lying.

DONOHUE: Irvine ranch is more of a planned community, [CHECK] you're gonna have so many, so many different kinds of houses, but I think the key in a lot of these things is there are sort of all of these nuances issue and it's very touch to compare 1st District to the other because of different water supplies, and everything like that, but the key is, I don't know that we're having a very forthright discussion about this right now, and hopefully we can start to do that, I think. Ricky's team's piece takes a large step towards that, this is just something that we need to start talking about, and I don't know that the city is prepared to do that yet.

YOUNG: Just to climb in on Bianca's point on moving closer to sweet water, [CHECK] they're applied equality to all the residential users. In San Diego it's 27 percent so right this, you have less leeway to affect your bill by using more or les, but that's some districts as Kent mentioned up in there North County that are applying 59 enforce of their typical bill is fixed costs. So you have no opportunity beyond that to --

ST. JOHN: Incentivize people.

YOUNG: Right.

ST. JOHN: Right. So which of the districts perhaps that are offering -- sweet water is pretty good, you're saying lake side, you've got a pretty good chart here and anyone who wants to find out where they live should check it out, perhaps on the web. Lake side has more leeway, Poway has more leeway. [CHECK].

YOUNG: Fallbrook, Yulima, up there in the Encinitas area. And I should be -- we used to be careful not to make these value judgments about these ones are better than those ones of there's reasons for everything they do. But what I would say is more so, there's less opportunity to affect your bill by saving water if those ones up in North County.

ST. JOHN: Okay. We've only got one minute left. I'm sorry we couldn't get dog on from Encinitas, dog we don't have time. But your question is, how do they tomorrow average or reasonable usage? So I guess even if you do what we've been talking about by property, how would you determine what is average or reasonable usage?

YOUNG: Well, those are value judgments and that's, I think, why it's hard to set a rate on that, what we used for our study was just sort of an industry surrender. What's the typical use, which is kind of an average.

DONOHUE: The city can tell you right now what the average household uses so I imagine from there you can start to break it down into different category.

ST. JOHN: Okay, well, studies like this certainly do spur the discussion, and it shows from all the people we've got on the line. A lot of people are concerned about this. We'd like to thank you all for ginning us today, and our editors have been Kent Davy editor of the North County Times, thank you.

YOUNG: Thank you.

ST. JOHN: Ricky Young, [CHECK] great discussion today, guys, thank you. I'm Alison St. John, thank you all for listening to Editors Roundtable here on KPBS.