Why are San Diego water rates so high?
Speaker 1: (00:00)
Yesterday's rain was a welcome change. Briefly interrupting a two month dry spell in San Diego state officials are predicting dire statewide drought conditions this year, which could mean more water use restrictions, but San Diego has gone a long way toward insulating itself from water shortages conservation efforts combined with prime checks like Carlsbad's desalination plant, leave the county in a better position to weather a drought. It also leaves us with some of the highest water rates in the state higher than Los Angeles county. Joining me is San Diego union Tribune, reporter Joshua Emerson Smith, to talk about the pros and cons of the county's water policy and Joshua, welcome to the program.
Speaker 2: (00:42)
Good to be here.
Speaker 1: (00:44)
San Diegos have seen their water rates creep up year after year. About how much more are we paying in comparison to LA?
Speaker 2: (00:52)
Well, our wholesale rate, which for untreated water, which is $1,474 an acre foot right now, and an acre foot is about a enough water to cover an acre foot deep. That's about $400 an acre foot more than what they're paying in LA. So quite a, quite a bit more.
Speaker 1: (01:11)
And of course, that kind of trickles down if you would, to the consumer and
Speaker 2: (01:15)
Speaker 1: (01:17)
San Diego has always been at the end of the pipeline for state water supplies is that the county water authority has launched its own water projects.
Speaker 2: (01:26)
Yeah, that's part of it. We're at the end of the pipeline when it comes to delivering water from the Sacramento bay Delta in the Colorado river, but we've also had a little bit of bad blood with our wholesaler. The metropolitan water district of Southern California after are, uh, dust up in the early nineties over drought restrictions. And ever since then, the water authority here in San Diego has been looking to develop its own supplies for water and use less and less of the met water.
Speaker 1: (01:57)
Tell us about the projects that it started and how they add to our water bills.
Speaker 2: (02:02)
Well, I it's everything from the raising, the San Viente dam or the Han dam to other emergency storage projects to perhaps most notably the Carlsbad desalination plant, which, uh, has some of the highest water rates, uh, around
Speaker 1: (02:21)
And apparently after taking on in whopping debts to increase the water supply, the county found itself up against a decrease in demand. How did that happen?
Speaker 2: (02:33)
I mean, no one really saw this coming to be fair, but since 2010, so over the last decade, demand for water from our whole sailor has decreased 40%. It's hard to overstate how significant that is. A lot of it is due to conservation. So people have ripped out their lawns with turf rebate programs, mandatory drought conservation during the last, uh, drought was pretty significant. So people are just using less water. On top of that. Local retail agencies are developing their own resources, which is largely recycling projects. And so that means that are also demanding less from our water wholesaler here in the region.
Speaker 1: (03:25)
Even though the county's water projects may help us get through droughts without a water shortage, there are San Diegos who can't afford to pay their water bills right now. Is there any plan to help them?
Speaker 2: (03:38)
Yeah, I mean that, that's the big issue, right? We have farmers who are saying they can't afford the cost of water and we've seen demand from the agricultural sector drop pretty severely, but now increasingly low income folks and even middle income folks are saying, they're having a hard time paying their water bills. And this is something that state and local officials are grappling with because it's hard to design these projects, uh, given the state rules around increasing water rates, you can't just increase water rates to redistribute the funds. So we're trying to figure this out. The state, the answers probably we gonna come from the state in, in terms of relief programs, but it's one of those issues where we see, we see it on the horizon. People are increasingly unable to afford their water bills. It's pretty significant.
Speaker 1: (04:34)
Apparently there was some effort by the county water authority to try to, uh, market the water rates as something in comparison and to other things people are paying for to be pretty good, but that didn't go over very well. Tell us about that.
Speaker 2: (04:47)
Right? So the water authority is under increased pressure to deal with the affordability issue. Something that it really hasn't been focused on in the past, in the past, the water authority has been hyper focused on reliability, the building, all of these different projects to ensure that we don't face significant cutbacks. So now it's facing this pressure to figure out how to keep rates under control. And at a recent meeting, they talked about a messaging campaign where they would compare the cost of tap water versus bottled water, gasoline milk, you name it. And a lot of the member, uh, a lot of the people on the board, right? These are the headwater officials for all of the retail water agencies across the region. They kind of baed at that idea. They said, you know, we should be figuring out not how to justify our high rates, but how to lower them, or at least keep them from raising even higher.
Speaker 1: (05:42)
Now, the city of San Diego's pure water recycling program is set to start in a few years. How will that affect water rates?
Speaker 2: (05:50)
That's gonna increase water rates pretty dramatically. Uh, not only is, does it mean that the city will be buying less water from the wholesaler, which has this, this effect of driving up the price, but it also means that we have to pay for all the infrastructure for building the water recycling. And so it's kind of a double whammy for the rate payer.
Speaker 1: (06:13)
It certainly looks like we'll have a lot of water and we certainly may need it as the effects of climate change increase. So could these high prices be seen as an investment in the future?
Speaker 2: (06:25)
Absolutely. Uh, right now we're in a situation where ironically, it seems like we have more water than we need than we know what to do with, even though we're in a drought, but going forward, this could pay dividends. Uh, we could see increased reliability in to decades to come. The question is what will the cost of that be?
Speaker 1: (06:49)
I've been speaking with San Diego union Tribune, reporter Joshua Emerson Smith, Joshua. Thank you always a pleasure.
Conservation efforts combined with projects across San Diego are playing a role in putting the county in a better position to weather a drought, but is also leaving the county with some of the highest water rates in the state — higher than Los Angeles County.
A new report by Arizona State University environmental economist Michael Hanemann offers an analysis of water rates in San Diego County. He found that the San Diego County Water Authority's wholesale rate for untreated water is $400 more per acre-foot than the Metropolitan Water District in Los Angeles.
Joshua Emerson Smith, enterprise reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune, joined KPBS Midday Edition to talk about the report's findings and the county’s water policy.
"People are increasingly unable to afford their water bills. It's pretty significant," Smith said. "We have farmers who are saying they can't afford the cost of water and we've seen demand from the agricultural sector drop pretty severely, but now increasingly low-income folks and even middle-income folks are saying they're having a hard time paying their water bills."
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Smith said the fact that San Diego is at the end of the pipeline for state water supplies is part of the reason San Diego County Water Authority has been investing in large water projects like the desalination plant in Carlsbad and other infrastructure improvements.
"We're at the end of the pipeline when it comes to delivering water from the Sacramento Bay Delta and the Colorado River, but we've also had a little bit of bad blood with our wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, after a dust up in the early '90s over drought restrictions, and ever since then the Water Authority here in San Diego has been looking to develop its own supplies for water and use less and less of the Met. water," Smith said.
He said since 2010, demand for water from wholesalers has decreased 40%, and that a lot of it is due to conservation, such as people ripping out their lawns with turf rebate programs, mandatory drought conservation during the last drought and people using less water overall.