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It should surprise no one that water is costlier in San Diego County than in many other parts of the state and nation. After all, we are at the literal end of the pipeline in a semi-arid region of 3.3 million people with few significant lakes, rivers or groundwater aquifers.
What is surprising is the continued insistence by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that it will take care of San Diego County’s water needs. Meena Westford, a Metropolitan Water representative in San Diego, recently challenged the San Diego County Water Authority for buying desalinated seawater before purchasing cheaper water from her agency.
“As a San Diego resident, I don’t want our most expensive water supplies to be our baseload and our cheapest supplies to be our insurance policy,” she told Voice of San Diego.
Westford misfires on two accounts. First, Metropolitan Water casts itself as the water supply “insurance” provider for Southern California. Its own website says, “The district imports water from the Feather River in Northern California and the Colorado River to supplement local supplies” (emphasis added).
And Westford wrongly equates price with value.
Consider that in 1991, San Diego County did purchase nearly all its water from Metropolitan – and then the district cut San Diego’s supplies by 31 percent for 13 months and threatened 50 percent cutbacks.
Our region’s civic and business leaders demanded an end to such supply vulnerability and insisted on a bold, new approach to avoid a repeat. That gave rise to the region’s multibillion-dollar diversification strategy. The strategy worked so well that when Metropolitan Water cut San Diego’s water supplies again in 2009, the Water Authority offset 40 percent of the shortfall even before the diversification strategy had more fully matured.
In 2015, Metropolitan Water did it again, cutting San Diego’s water supplies by 15 percent. This time around, the Water Authority had the drought-proof Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Desalination Plant online and other resources to ensure sufficient supplies to cover the deficit.
Does increased reliability come at a price? Of course, and San Diegans get that. They have consistently supported investments in desalination, water recycling and other strategies in part because of Metropolitan Water’s supply reliability challenges.
In the Water Authority’s 2015 public opinion poll of county residents, 40 percent of respondents ranked supply as their greatest water-related concern. Just 7 percent said cost. Residents also have shown strong support for the region’s water supply diversification strategy. In 2015, more than 8 out of 10 respondents supported it, and 67 percent said water was a good or excellent value compared to other utilities and services. (Even with local investments, water in San Diego County costs about a penny a gallon.)
While most people don’t know what’s driving their bills, the Water Authority pays close attention. As they have been for many years, Metropolitan Water’s costs are the primary factor in the San Diego Water Authority’s proposed 2018 rate increase of 3.7 percent. In fact, Metropolitan Water’s rates have doubled over the past decade.
While desalinated seawater and independent Colorado River water supplies also will increase in price over time, those increases are limited by contracts. Metropolitan Water’s rates, on the other hand, can continue to escalate rapidly – and they almost certainly will, given Metropolitan Water’s lack of fiscal restraint.
After all, this is the agency that blew $400 million on a turf replacement program and $175 million on islands in Northern California just in the past few years. Then, its cash reserves fell so low that it authorized $900 million in unplanned borrowing, according to Metropolitan Water’s own documents. None of that suggests long-term viability or cost control.
Don’t be distracted by Metropolitan Water’s cost claims. Its fiscal mismanagement has resulted in cost increases that drive up local water rates without a corresponding increase in supply reliability.
Mark Muir is chair of the board of directors of the San Diego County Water Authority. Muir’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.