Outrage over increased water rates

“Dr. King, what is our water situation?” I asked our water department director in 1977.

“I have good news and bad news” he said.

“Tell me the good news” I prompted.

“In the future, all we are going to have is sewage” he said.

Alarmed, I demanded to know the “bad news.”

“There will not be enough sewage to go around.”

Here we are, nearly 40 years later, and our water situation is indeed alarming.

Within the past week, Water Department Director Halla Razak successfully urged the City Council to pile another 16.7 percent (compounding) rate increase on top of last year’s 15 percent average increase for the city of San Diego’s residential-water use.

Razak, an SDSU-trained civil engineer with a background in small construction projects, not water economics, blames the increases on the drought, water conservation and the increasing price of water purchased on the open market.

In reality, the compounding rate increases is the cumulative result of a raft of mistakes made by the four self-serving water monopolies that oppress us.

Let’s start from the top, the State Water Project, a Pat Brown-era public works bonanza that purported to collect and then distribute water from the saturated north to the parched south.

Not letting any crises go to waste, son Jerry Brown, citing this drought, proposed a massive water bond to upgrade the long-neglected system and to belatedly complete the disconnect created by the absence of the so-called Peripheral Canal.

This time, no canal. Instead, the governor proposes billion-dollar tunnels.

Out of sight, out of mind, must go his thinking.

The problem with the bond and the listed projects is that they are all directed at improving the Rube Goldberg system that robs water from the hostile north.

That upstate system can be interrupted by earthquake, sabotage, electrical shortages and politics. It is and will continue to be expensive and undependable.

Instead, coastal cities should be investing in water reclamation in the short run and seawater desalinization for the long run.

But not to worry — while we are paying for the bond now, raising our current costs, we will see no extra water from those projects in our lifetimes.

The next monopoly in our supply chain is the Metropolitan Water District (MWD).

In the 1980s, I co-authored former Assemblymember Richard Katz’s water-marketing bill, a measure prompted by the wise suggestion of the Rand Corporation think tank.

Katz’s measure embedded economic incentives to develop water supplies and conserve existing uses. The effect of this bill was to damage the MWD monopoly.

To frustrate the purpose of the bill, the MWD charges skyrocketed for “wheeling” (allowing to flow through "their" pipes) freely marketed water via their pipelines. Keep in mind that “their” pipes were built with our money.

Katz had to subsequently legislate rate parameters to head off the MWD outrage.

It is that law that the MWD continues to violate; overcharging our County Water Authority (CWA) for its wholesale supply while stiffing us on our supply entitlement.

The CWA just won a lawsuit on that issue but MWD promises to appeal … yep, with our money.

The CWA is not off the hook. In 1980, I successfully carried legislation authorizing the CWA to use its countywide position to foster reclaimed water for irrigation use.

Some 35 years later, the CWA has not fostered a single drop of reclaimed water, thereby assuring the continued waste of 50 percent of our drinking water on landscaping.

“We didn’t need it!” the CWA chairman claims. Really? Why, then, is my backyard brown and my water rates skyrocketing?

And finally, the biggest contributor to our sorry state of water management is the city of San Diego itself.

In 1985, I successfully carried a law requiring Caltrans to use reclaimed water for irrigation and to convert to drought-tolerant landscaping.

How is it doing 30 years later? Oh, about 20 percent compliant with either state mandate.

Caltrans is wasting over a billion gallons of water a year on landscaping in this county alone and has been for the intervening 30 years … 30 billion gallons of wasted potable water!

Caltrans blames our city and others for not supplying them the mandated reclaimed water.

True enough. So why, pray tell, does the city berate, badger and bill San Diego citizens constantly while pouring millions of gallons of reclaimed water down the sewer?

The first excuse by Razak was: “We don’t have enough pipes and they are expensive.” Well, such pipes have always been paid for by revenue bonds and the bonds paid off by those that use the pipes.

Next excuse? “It is unconstitutional to charge potable-rate payers for reclaimed water.” So don’t do it. Charge the reclaimed users the full cost of the supply. Apparently the city staff does not know the market value of reclaimed water.

Next excuse? Oh, we are going for the “pure water” solution, so reclaimed water marketing is moot.

“Pure water” is the latest propaganda name to evade the “toilet-to-tap” moniker.

The city is spending billions (did I say billions?) of dollars of your water bills to treat and reinsert sewage into our drinking water and expect you to, ah, swallow that because they are calling now calling it “pure.”

I agree that the technology is good enough to accomplish that.

But, even so, 50 percent of the thusly treated “pure” water will still go to landscape irrigation, thus institutionalizing a gargantuan waste that could be avoided by extending the purple pipe of reclaimed water and serving major landscape targets with cheaper reclaimed water.

Why not do both?

Oh well, there is not enough sewage to go around, Razak says.

Stirling, a former U.S. Army officer, has been elected to the San Diego City Council, state Assembly and state Senate. He also served as a municipal and superior court judge in San Diego. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor.

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