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San Diegans on notice: Water rates could be rising

San Diegans will be getting a notice with their water bill alerting them of a public hearing in the fall, their rates may be going up again.

Come 2023, San Diegans might be paying more every time they turn on their faucet, flush the toilet or water their lawns. That’s because San Diego’s city council unanimously approved a proposal to send out notices in September for a public hearing to adjust water rates. It’s the first step before an increase. Under this proposal the rate could go up by as much as 3%.

"We understand the impact of rate increases on our customers, especially on our most vulnerable, especially during these times," said Lisa Celaya, the assistant executive director of San Diego Public Utility, after asking the city council for the authorization to conduct a public hearing and send out notices on the rate hike.

During Tuesday's city council meeting, she said they are simply passing on the increase they are seeing from the San Diego County Water Authority, where they buy almost 90% of their water. "Without this rate increase, which is only a pass through of the water authority’s whole-sale rate increase to purchase water, we would have to divert funds that have already been identified for critical infrastructure needs," she said.

KPBS spoke with Lisa Marie Harris, finance director and treasurer of the San Diego County Water Authority, about increasing water rates in the current climate of inflation. She said it is a big concern. "It's critical that we not only have a reliable source of water but that we also have an affordable source of water," Harris said.

She said the Water Authority has been hit hard with increases too, paying millions more in water costs, energy and employee salaries, and said the agency has already tapped into their reserves and federal funds to offset those costs. Harris said if they hadn’t done that, customers would be seeing double-digit increases.

While the proposed increase for the city of San Diego is a pass-on, the County Water Authority's debt manager Pierce Rossum said they don’t only pass on increases. He said they also passed on funds from a settlement with the Metropolitan Water District over its prices for wholesale water.

"We got $90 million in our door, and we sent that $90 million straight back to our member agencies to lower bills, to build infrastructure to do as they see fit," Rossum said, adding the Water Authority is getting creative and finding new income opportunities like federal water storage that is bringing in millions. He said those savings will get passed on too.

San Diego's public hearing will be held in September. If approved, this rate increase will be the second in two years.