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Proposed water rate hike draws fire

A plan to boost local water rates by as much as 7 percent per year through 2019 received a skeptical hearing from the San Diego City Council on Tuesday, with council members and a string of public speakers suggesting that the plan should do more to reward and encourage conservation.

No action was taken on the plan, which will be brought back to the council for a full public hearing on Nov. 17. But there seemed to be broad agreement that the plan will need some major revisions before it is rolled out. It is currently targeted for implementation on Jan. 1.

Ironically, San Diego is a victim of its own success in conserving water. San Diegans have reduced their use by 25 percent over the past year, outpacing Gov. Jerry Brown's goal of a 20 percent reduction.

But those reductions mean less money flowing into the San Diego County Water Authority at a time when it needs more cash to replace aging water lines, complete the Carlsbad desalination plant and meet the rising cost of water supplies that it purchases from outside the area.

To match those rising costs, the San Diego Public Utilities Department proposed a series of rate hikes, starting with a 9.8 percent increase on Jan. 1, followed by a 6.9 percent increase in both July 2016 and 2017, 5 percent in July 2018 and 7 percent in July 2019, although those rates could vary.

Most of the public speakers said they understood the need for a rate hike.

"We know there's a demonstrated need for costs to increase in order to invest in improving the infrastructure," said Sean Karafin, executive director of policy and economic research at the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Karafin suggested that desalination and the recycling system will ultimately help cut costs by making the city less dependent on expensive water imported from outside the area.

But other speakers objected to some of the details in the plan. A string of business owners and civic leaders from Otay Mesa, for instance, said that their community had not been given enough credit for introducing its own recycling system, which runs relatively autonomously from the city's network.

"Our water rates will go up unfairly to subsidize other customers in the north of the city," said Viviana Ibanez, marketing and programs director of the Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce.

City Councilmember David Alvarez echoed Ibanez, saying that the city needed to ensure there was a fair and equitable sharing of costs between geographic areas. And he added that the costs should be adjusted so that the biggest water users -- "those who decide to keep lush green gardens and keep their grass green all the time" -- should pay higher costs.

"The current system is flawed," said City Councilmember Chris Cate. "It doesn't incentivize people to conserve because it depends on people using water."

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