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An unconvinced resident about detaching from the San Diego County Water Authority

 

Last updated 5/18/2022 at 5:26pm



I attended the Joint Town Hall Meeting hosted by Fallbrook Public Utilities District and Rainbow Municipal Water District May 2. The purpose of the meeting was for district staff to meet with residents to explain and garner support for a proposal whereby both districts would sever their membership with San Diego County Water Authority and join Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County as water purveyor for Fallbrook and surrounding areas.

I appreciate that our county Supervisor, Jim Desmond, was in attendance to hear both sides of the issue since he will eventually need to weigh in on this important matter as a member of LAFCO. Unfortunately, I was surprised that only one side of the issue was presented by the district staff and residents in attendance. It started me thinking: “is there only one side to this issue?"

The thrust of the argument in favor of detaching from SDCWA was cheaper water for all. Anytime I hear promises from the government of getting something cheaper, it raises questions so I started to do a little research on my own to see if there may be another side to this issue before deciding which is the better path to support.

As one who spent the better part of my career working in local government as both an assistant general manager of a water and power agency and as an assistant city manager of a large city in California, I have reason to be suspect when local agencies start making promises with respect to monumental organizational changes predicated on the notion of great financial savings.

All too often, I have found that these ideas typically result in unforeseen costs to taxpayers and ratepayers chasing ideas down rabbit holes only to find out that funds spent on lawyers and consultants could have been better spent on needed infrastructure improvements and local cost reducing measures through better management. Having said that, I’m all in favor of saving money. Who isn’t? However, I have several questions and concerns that came out of that meeting that need to be addressed before I can confidently support a proposal to detach from SDCWA. Those questions revolve around the following key areas: water supply reliability, water restrictions, costs for detachment.

My biggest concern is complete reliance on EMWD. At the meeting, it was presented that EMWD will restrict Fallbrook customers from sharing in EMWD’s other diverse water resources and limit new RMWD and FPUD customers to only Metropolitan Water District pass-through water. I continue to read about Colorado River water reliability and concerns about growing competition for that water resource.

What is the reliability of MWD’s Colorado River supplies relative to SDCWA’s Colorado River water supplies obtained from its long-term agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District and the lining of the All American and Coachella canals? Drought and environmental pressures in Northern California’s Bay Delta make MWD’s reliance on the State Water Project problematic.

For MWD’s member agencies reliant on the SWP, they are under severe water restrictions today, with outdoor watering now limited to once a week with water meters electronically monitored to assure compliance. As MWD improves the connectiveness of its water system, won’t the pain be spread throughout MWD?

I have seen what these measures have done to Central Valley farmers. Once the breadbasket of America, many areas of the Central Valley have been reduced to a dust bowl as a result of SWP restrictions due to severe drought and prioritizing the Sacramento Delta habitat over the needs of farmers and vital agriculture. Is this what we want for Fallbrook and the surrounding areas?

SDCWA will eventually own the Carlsbad Desalination Plant that produces 50 million gallons of desalinated ocean water per day. They embarked on this project in 2012 to secure an unlimited supply of desalinated ocean water to protect member agencies and residents from periods of severe drought and dwindling water resources from MWD. We all have been paying for this investment as part of the capital charges on our water bill.

Whether I was a farmer or resident, supply and reliability would be of great importance to me. It seems odd that any resident or business would help finance a crucial asset such as an ocean desalination plant and then walk away from it to join an agency that only provides declining MWD “pass-through” Colorado River water and unreliable SWP supplies.

How long can one expect to pay cheaper rates for a commodity with dwindling supply? Better yet, what good is it to pay cheaper rates for a commodity that will likely place restrictions on its consumption?

Finally, I have concerns about detachment fees. What will be the cost to detach from SDCWA? Clearly, SDCWA will argue that their infrastructure investments, such as the Carlsbad Desalter, anticipated RMWD and FPUD rate payer support and will levy hefty exit fees which rate payers will continue to pay for years with nothing to show for it.

Also, is it possible that RMWD and FPUD will need to issue new debt or use their capital or reserve accounts to pay for detachment? Will water commodity rates go down temporarily but fixed costs increase permanently? It’s hard for me to see how this is good for RMWD and FPUD customers.

The reason I raise these questions is that I have seen the government running down a path with good intentions only to find out that precious tax payer and rate payer dollars could have been used to make internal improvements and create internal savings but instead were foolishly spent on expensive attorneys and consultants with nothing to show for it. I’m sure that the district rate payers have already spent a great deal pursuing this initiative. Let’s make sure that we are not taking one step forward and two steps back.

Greg Irvine

 

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