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Reporter’s Notebook: San Diego’s ‘drought proof’ water is proving ever more expensive

San Diegans arguably have more water than they know what to do with. So much, in fact, officials have been exploring a deal with the federal government to store excess supplies in imperiled Lake Mead.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have that storage now, where we could be helping others?” Jim Madaffer, a longtime water insider who sits on the board of the wholesaler San Diego County Water Authority, asked me rhetorically this past week.

The region, like the rest of California, avoided drought cuts on the Colorado River on Tuesday, when the Federal Bureau of Reclamation issued its dire forecast for the nation’s largest reservoir. Arizona, Nevada and Mexico were not so lucky.

While Northern California and much of the Southwest grapple with dry, rapidly warming temperatures, San Diegans have heard relatively little from local leaders this summer about turning off sprinklers, taking shorter showers or ripping out lawns.

However, ratepayers are starting to realize that such so-called reliability comes with a hefty price tag. Water bills across the county have been soaring, and it’s only projected to get worse.

Over the last two decades, the region has invested in everything from desalination to raising dams to sewage recycling to inking a landmark deal with Imperial Valley farmers for Colorado River water.

Water authority officials have painted a rosy picture of the situation. They point out that San Diego has positioned itself remarkably well with its deal for river water, securing some of the highest priority supplies among all the basin states.

“The investments we’ve made over the last 20 years truly are paying off,” said Madaffer, who represents the city of San Diego on the wholesaler’s 36-member board, which includes representatives from its 24 water agency customers. “San Diego’s a lesson for the rest of the state in what to do right.”

Agricultural water supplies have been less enamored with the water authority’s strategy. In fact, water agencies in Fallbrook and Rainbow are in open revolt over the cost of water. They even have a pending application to leave the wholesaler in favor of joining the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County.

“The high cost of water is challenging for all of our customers, but especially hard hit are our agricultural customers, many of whom have gone out of business due to water costs,” said Tom Kennedy, general manager of the Rainbow Municipal Water District.

For years, the water authority planned for a booming, thirsty populace whose enormous demand for water would justify and help offset the cost of such ambitious projects. But while San Diego ratepayers took on billions of dollars in debt, they also achieved unprecedented levels of conservation that has far outpaced the county’s now flat population growth.

The region’s water use has plummeted over the last 15 years from nearly 220 gallons a day per person to less than 140 gallons daily per capita, according to the water authority. The wholesaler sold 384,167 acre feet of water last year, down from a peak of 660,445 acre feet in 2007.

An acre foot is enough water to cover an acre a foot deep or supply about two and a half average households a year in San Diego.

As a result, ratepayer revenue has taken a nosedive, and the water authority, as well as local agencies, have had to hike rates to cover an array of fixed costs — from paying off bonds to building new recycling plants to contracts that require the water authority to buy desalinated and Colorado River water whether the region needs it or not.

Meanwhile, such projects are proving more expensive than many first hoped. Most recently, the desalination plant in Carlsbad is undergoing a costly overhaul to comply with state environmental regulations, and the city of San Diego’s Pure Water recycling project suffered a “very expensive error,” which will tack on at least $20 million to the multibillion-dollar endeavor.

The East County’s sewage recycling project has also faced the fears that its current $950 million cost estimate could balloon thanks to a dispute with the city of San Diego. Agency officials have wrangled for months over how to pay for shared pipelines and other infrastructure.

Price increases have been so sharp it’s hard to imagine more, but it’s projected. The wholesale rate for treated water in San Diego County reached $1,736 an acre foot last year, up from $620 an acre foot in 2007. The agency recently forecast that an acre foot of water could go for $2,993 by 2030.

Officials in Sacramento are now eyeing new mandatory drought restriction for next year, especially if winter precipitation fails to blanket the Sierra Nevada with heaps of snow. Such mandatory conservation would almost certainly hit many San Diego ratepayers’ pocketbooks even harder, especially low-income residents already using the bare minimum amount of water.

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