COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE HAWKINS

Paying more for less water

Sweetwater Authority, the agency that provides water for National City, Bonita and the western and central portions of Chula Vista, has announced it will be increasing water rates. Helix Water District, serving La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove and unincorporated areas of San Diego County, sent a notice that it is planning rate increases for each of the next five years. The San Diego Public Utilities Department says essentially the same thing.

Higher costs for water are in store for most consumers in California. Helix, Sweetwater and San Diego are simply among the first to announce that the remarkable response by users to reduce the amount of water they use is among the reasons water providers offer when they announce these actions.

For most consumers, that means a continuation of something that would seem to be an oxymoronic situation. Annually, Californians are using less water but their water bills are higher. We are paying more for less.

We have no one to blame but ourselves. Our mistake is not that we have reduced our consumption of potable water. Our error, one we repeat with unending regularity, is conducted at the ballot box. We elect people who make poorly suited spending decisions with the money we send them.

Were a private company to attempt to justify charging more for what it provides a public that has a choice, competition from another provider would be in play. Water consumers have no alternative and must rely on the people they elect to these water authorities to protect them. Private companies are bound by the fact that rival organizations are always looking for ways to reduce costs.

When there is no competition, managers are not dominated by a need to reduce operational expenses. Most of the managers and board members of the various water agencies are honest and conscientious people, but the urgency to reduce those costs is driven only by what their goodwill and integrity push them toward. Often, that is not enough.

As well meaning as they may be, they are spending other people’s money. That requires a discipline not generally apparent in those we elect.

The money problem for water providers, according to one explanation offered when increased pricing is questioned, is that the support structure for the delivery of water and the service needs has not changed, even though there is less water running through the system.

There are, of course set maintenance requirements associated with the business of delivering water to hundreds of thousands of businesses and households that don’t change much with variations in volume. They are not the only factors involved.

Some of those costs, such as defined benefit retirement plans, have been fixed arbitrarily. Paying for those is a major operational cost driver. To some degree, it has become a never-ending circle. It is in this area that the abdication of responsibility has occurred.

A fixed benefit retirement plan costs more every time the boards and unions agree on a higher, newer or expanded benefit. In some cases the agencies negotiate contributions from employees to help fund these benefits, a gesture usually perversely negated by an offsetting pay increase. All of this is, of course, borne by the water consumer. These expenses don’t go down.

In short, water consumers are victims to a significant degree of the largesse that water board members shower on their employees, a largesse fueled partly by fear of the union bosses that represent employees. We are now being punished with brown lawns, dried-out flower gardens, shorter showers and larger water bills.

Water users are stuck, for the time being. The only long-term change awaits the next several election cycles. It is unlikely the public’s memory will last beyond one election cycle. Most of the people who created our pain will escape what should be our electoral wrath.


Hawkins is retired after 35 years as a construction industry association manager. He was a broadcast reporter and news anchor in Denver. As a Navy officer, he saw action in Vietnam in the River Assault Squadrons and is the recipient of a Silver Star and Purple Heart.

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1 UserComments
Michael Flood 12:00am September 22, 2015

Amen! Why isn't this absurd perversion by public officials getting more press and political attention? Also, look at the pay scale for those elected officials. They are helping themselves as well at the trough to pay, benefits and pensions that completely outweigh their contributions.