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Fallbrook sees rates drop in 'water divorce,' Rainbow not so much — yet. Here's why

After two North County water districts voted to leave the San Diego County Water Authority last year, some residents are now seeing cheaper water rates. But KPBS North County reporter Alexander Nguyen tells us other residents will have to wait a bit longer to see those savings.

With the new year, Fallbrook residents are seeing a reduction in their water rates as a result of the detachment from the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) — the so-called "water divorce."

Voters in Fallbrook and Rainbow overwhelmingly approved the detachment, a process that started four years ago. Both Fallbrook Public Utility District (FPUD) and Rainbow Municipal Water District (RMWD) had said that their customers were paying too much for water.

The lower rate is a result of the divorce. FPUD detached from the Water Authority on Jan. 1.


“Bottom line, that's huge. Not just for me, but for the entire community,” said Lila Hargrove, CEO of the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce. “To be able to save 5% in water is a big deal. Sometimes that 5% equals food on the table or help to pay with rent.”

Hargrove was a proponent of the detachment. She said the cheaper water will also help the agriculture industry in the area — which is known for its avocado crop.

"Once again, money that they can put back into the infrastructure of their business ... I think a big thing for agriculture since our community is about food, we grow a lot here," she said. "That's going to make a huge difference just in being able to produce locally and keep our food local."

Agricultural customers' savings, however, will depend on their water usage and meter size, said Jack Bebee, the general manager of the Fallbrook Public Utility District.

Cheaper water was what FPUD and RMWD promised their customers when they started the detachment process four years ago.


According to an independent analysis by the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the agency tasked with overseeing inter-agency disputes, detaching would save Fallbrook and Rainbow customers more than $7 million a year.

“For us, the key coming out of this was really to be able to do something to lower and then stabilize rates going forward,” Bebee said.

For a while, it looked like the water divorce would be messy and drawn out. SDCWA filed a lawsuit in August, shortly after LAFCO approved the detachment. (Detachment is a two-step process. After LAFCO's approval, voters in those districts needed to approve the detachment as well).

That lawsuit was settled in late December. In a statement, SDCWA Chair Mel Katz said the settlement “makes the best of a bad situation.”

"To be able to save 5% in water is a big deal. Sometimes that 5% equals food on the table or help to pay with rent.”
Lila Hargrove, CEO of the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce

"While we continue to believe the detachment award should have been higher, RMWD and FPUD are required to pay all costs, above the amount ordered by the Local Agency Formation Commission in addition to its entire exit fee up front, meaning there will be no immediate rate impacts for ratepayers," he said in the statement.

While Fallbrook customers will be able to see immediate savings, Rainbow customers will have to wait. In fact, Rainbow residents can expect to see a rise in water rates first because of the Water Authority rate increases.

That’s because it’ll take RMWD a little longer to fully detach from the Water Authority.

Jake Wiley, the general manager of RMWD, said there are a few administrative and infrastructure issues to iron out first.

“We have several connections, some which lie in the north end of our service area, some which lie in the south, and the ones in the north are currently controlled by the County Water Authority," he said. "So again, we've got to transfer those facilities to Rainbow.”

Wiley expects all of that to be completed by this fall.

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