Water Rates Have Soared and They're Not Stalling

Water UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Water Rates Have Soared and They're Not Stalling

Over the past 25 years, water rates have more than doubled for most customers in San Diego County. And, even as we’re all using less water, rates will continue to climb for most county residents.

This the first of a few stories this week to examine water rates in the county and the effects of those rates. We’ll take a look at the city’s plans to raise rates, and also how the drought is affecting rates and even politics at agencies elsewhere in the county.

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Over the past 25 years, water rates have more than doubled for most customers in San Diego County. And, even as we’re all using less water, rates will continue to climb for most county residents.

A look at rates across the county since 1990 shows a relentless increase in water prices – much faster than overall inflation.

About a dozen water agencies in San Diego County have recently approved price increases or are likely to in the near future.

This week, officials in the city of San Diego are considering another price hike. It would be the 21st water rate increase since 1990.

The city’s rates have risen faster than rates charged by most other water sellers in the county since 1990. But, the rates started relatively low, so city customers these days are now paying about what most other people are.

Like the city, those other water agencies buy most of their water from the San Diego County Water Authority. The Water Authority imports water from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. The county’s 24 water agencies buy water from the Water Authority and then sell that water to homes and businesses.

Those agencies’ prices can vary significantly. In East County, a homeowner might pay about $70 for a month’s worth of water from the Lakeside Water District. But a few miles away, in the Padre Dam Municipal Water District, the same water would cost $120.

Brett Sanders, Lakeside’s general manager, said he’s been able to avoid increasing rates for 15 years, if you don’t count the rising cost of water he buys from the Water Authority. Most agencies’ rate increases track the rising cost of water imported and sold by the Water Authority, but agencies also have their own separate operating costs that vary, everything from staff salaries to the number of pipelines they have to repair or replace.

Sanders buys used vehicles instead of new ones, hires students part-time to read meters and waits for prices to come down before adopting new technology.

Down the road, Allen Carlisle, general manager of Padre Dam, said there are many reasons it’s hard to hold down rates for his customers.

Several are purely geographic: Padre Dam’s service area is about three times larger than Lakeside’s and the land is hilly. Carlisle has to send water up 2,600 feet to get it from Santee to Alpine, and that takes electricity and money.

Padre Dam also doesn’t have groundwater, which some water agencies in North County and East County can draw on – groundwater is cheap to get and each gallon of it is a gallon less an agency has to buy from the Water Authority.

Compared with a city, Padre Dam’s customers are also farther away from one another, meaning it has to lay pipe over greater distances and yet still reaches fewer people.

Out in rural areas, a customer with a small home might pay more for water than he or she would in the suburbs or even in the city. But that’s because water rates are tailored to accommodate high-water users, like farmers.

Water companies charge two kinds of rates: a base rate, which is a flat fee paid by every customer based on their meter size (most homeowners have the same-sized three-quarter inch meter).

Then there are rates based on how much water a customer buys. These, in turn, have their own wide variety: Most districts escalate prices based on use, so the first 10 units of water may cost one price and the next 10 may cost something else. This allows some agencies to discourage high water use.

As a result, water is pretty cheap in the city of San Diego if you don’t use a lot of it, but it can quickly become expensive for high users. The opposite is true of water sold by Rainbow Municipal Water District in North County. There, a small bit of water is pretty expensive, but if you start using a lot of water, the price of each unit doesn’t go up very much.

That’s because the average Rainbow customer uses about 100 units of water. (Most agencies’ units are hundred cubic feet.) An average customer in the rest of the county uses around 15 units.

“If you use our average consumption of about 100 units per month when do your comparisons, my bet is that our rates will be very favorable when compared to other agencies,” Rainbow’s general manager, Tom Kennedy, said in an email.

He’s right: 100 units of water would cost around $800 in the city of San Diego, but costs about half that in Rainbow and other agricultural areas.

Correction: The price of a unit of water in the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District increased by 360 percent since 1990. An earlier version of this post said the price of a unit of water in the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District increased by 515 percent. It increased by 360 percent.

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