Three weeks ago, Jim Barrett, the director of San Diego’s Water Department, was unequivocal when he told the City Council that the city was not evaluating a water rate structure like the one used in the Irvine Ranch Water District.

Turns out, he was also wrong.

In a memo sent Friday to Council President Ben Hueso, Mayor Jerry Sanders — Barrett’s boss — said the opposite. Sanders said the Water Department “has been reviewing and will continue to evaluate” the type of rate structure used in Irvine Ranch, which is designed to financially penalize inefficient users and reward conservers.

In Irvine Ranch, which serves 330,000 people in Orange County, each customer gets a monthly water allowance, called a budget, that’s based on site-specific data. For residences, it’s based on how many people live in a house and how large the property’s landscaping is. The more water users exceed their budget, the higher their water rates go.

Barrett’s comment to the council brought criticism from Lani Lutar, the president and CEO of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, who said two city water officials had told her and other business leaders that they were evaluating the idea.

I asked Alex Roth, a Sanders spokesman, about the contradiction between the mayor’s memo and what Barrett told the council.

“That memo is accurate,” Roth said. “We are still looking at this and evaluating this. It is certainly something that could be an option down the road.”

He did not have a specific timeframe.

City water officials have previously praised Irvine Ranch’s approach for its fairness but then misrepresented the challenges of implementing it. Barrett told the council earlier this month that the city would likely be sued if it adopted the structure. Several water attorneys subsequently told me that the approach was on a solid legal footing.


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