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Fallbrook, Rainbow water 'divorce' decision delayed until August

A local government body on Monday delayed the decision on whether two North County water districts can leave the San Diego County Water Authority to buy cheaper water elsewhere.

Fallbrook Public Utility District and Rainbow Municipal Water District want a divorce from the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) because they say the water rate is too high. They want to move to the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside for its cheaper water. It's a process called detachment.

The decision on whether Fallbrook and Rainbow can leave the 24-member agency rests on the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), the government body that decides boundary disputes between public agencies.


The commission has a few options: leave things as they are, approve the detachment without conditions, approve the detachment with a $24 million “exit fee,” or delay the decision until after a multiyear Municipal Service Review (MSR).

Commissioners were concerned about passing costs to the remaining customers and have delayed the vote until August to study the issue further.

"I think it's useful for us to consider what those of us on this commission will have to do," said Stephen Whitburn, LAFCO vice chair. "We ask what is logical for San Diego County, what is advantages for San Diego County ... The advantage for Fallbrook and Rainbow is cheaper water. What is the advantage of detachment for the rest of San Diego?"

As with any divorce, it’s messy and affects more than just Fallbrook and Rainbow.

“Detachment will essentially be a tax on approximately 3 million people,” said Nick Serrano, SDCWA vice chair.


For the past 30 years, the SDCWA has invested in infrastructure to make San Diego more drought resistant to the tune of $19 billion. If Fallbrook and Rainbow were to leave, those costs will be borne by the 22 remaining districts.

“We don't believe that it's fair to be letting the rest of the region foot the bill for all of these investments that we've been able to make over these last number of years and unfairly cause people's water rates to increase,” Serrano said.

But for Fallbrook and Rainbow water districts, the issue is one of fairness. Most of their customers are farmers who said water costs are affecting their livelihoods.

“Over the last decade, the water authority has risen rates on Fallbrook and Rainbow by an average of 8% each year — each year," said Noelle Denke, spokesperson for Fallbrook PUC. "It's not sustainable.”

David Baxter used to farm avocados, but rising water costs forced him to transition to less water-intensive protea flower farming. Even then, his water rate keeps rising.

“Since we transitioned to a much more drought tolerant plant, we've reduced our water usage 38%, but our costs have gone up 49% even through that conservation effort,” he said.

San Diego has some of the highest water rates in the nation, mainly from the costs of transporting water from the Colorado River. Eastern Municipal in Riverside, however, does not get its water from the Colorado River.

Detaching from SDCWA would save Fallbrook and Rainbow customers $7 million a year. But, as with any divorce, there are costs. It could cost Fallbrook and Rainbow $24 million in an "exit fee" spread out over five years to offset some of the infrastructure investment costs borne by SDCWA.

The commissioners delayed the decision until Aug. 7 to study the issue further. If LAFCO approves the detachment, voters in Fallbrook and Rainbow will still need to approve it as well.

If the commissioners choose to delay the decision until after an MSR is completed, the rest of the county voters could also get a say under a proposed assembly bill.

AB530, a bill proposed by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner, would require all residents affected by a water authority detachment process to have a say as well. Right now, only residents in districts requesting detachment need to vote to approve.