Opinion: Why water rates will continue to climb in La Jolla and San Diego

• OPINION / OUR VIEW / La Jolla Light Editorial:

These days it seems the only things certain in life are death, taxes and higher water rates.

If you are in charge of paying the city water bill, you’ve likely seen (or will soon see) a notice of proposed water rate increases in your mailbox. There will be an invitation to attend a public meeting and a process for filing a protest letter. These things are required under state Proposition 218.

Show up if you want or e-mail your complaint to City Hall, but it won’t do any good. That is, unless somehow you can convince 50 percent of all customers in the city to protest as well. That’s not likely.

You may be saying to yourself, “But I’ve reduced my water use by (fill in the blank) percent this past year. I’m doing my part for water conservation. Why am I being penalized?”

Call it the cost of doing business. A little background is necessary.

Because we live in a desert (yes, really), nearly all of San Diego County’s drinking water is imported from either the Colorado River Basin or from Northern California. The big wholesaler, the agency with its hand on the supply line valve, is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The district sells water to dozens of water districts, including the San Diego County Water Authority. Any increases in the cost of providing the raw water are passed along from “Metro” to the county agency, which then adds its own increases to the rate before moving it down the pipeline to its member agencies, which include the City of San Diego and its suburbs.

For reasons far too complicated to outline in this space, “Metro” and the county authority don’t get along and the county agency has taken prudent steps in recent years to start weaning itself from Northern California water. For example, later this year a state-of-the-art (and expensive) desalination plant will be turned on in Carlsbad and will provide about 7 percent of the county’s drinking water. Long-term deals for water have also been made with Imperial County users that move San Diego County up in line for Colorado River allocations. Off in the distance is the possibility of wastewater being processed into clean drinking water.

Water systems are expensive to operate and maintain. They consume electricity, chemicals and employee salaries. Pump motors and filters need to be replaced, as do countless other parts, and miles upon miles of pipelines. These all need to be operating well, regardless of how much water is being used by the customer at the end of the pipe. Of course these “fixed” costs continue to increase, right along with the cost of raw water.

Local water providers — the ones sending you those official notices — are in a tough spot. They need to charge their customers the “pass-through” water costs from Metro and the county, while keeping their own fixed costs in line.

When customers do their part to conserve, they are also cutting into sales revenues. (San Diego’s water revenue is down more 30 percent this year.) Local providers somehow have to make up the difference, and that means more money out of the pocketbooks of customers.

The predicted El Niño storms this winter and spring won’t do much to change the upward march in rates. The storms may replenish depleted snowpacks and water reservoirs and relax mandated water conservative rules, but it’s unlikely that most customers, having torn out their lawns and planted drought-resistant shrubs, will revert back to water-wasting ways. Water sales will remain at post-drought levels.

Water rates will continue climb. This is a fact of life in the desert.

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