For years, the San Diego County Water Authority has been fighting an expensive battle to lower its dependence on water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Now the smaller agencies the Water Authority serves are waging their own effort to gain independence so they can control costs and their own water supply.

Water rates – like water itself – trickle down.

When power costs or building costs increase, Metropolitan raises rates on agencies that buy its water. The Water Authority, Metropolitan’s largest customer, pays those rates and passes along its costs to its customers.

Those customers are the two-dozen agencies that deliver water to most every home and businesses in the county. The agencies, in turn, raise their rates too – and then we all pay more.

Since a drought in the early-1990s, the Water Authority has paid – often handsomely – to lessen the region’s dependence on Metropolitan.

The Water Authority’s plan to distance itself from Metropolitan was expensive – it built a $1 billion desalination plant and entered into a deal to buy Colorado River water from farmers in Imperial County.

In January, the cost of the Water Authority’s water will go up by 5.4 percent, an increase driven largely by the price of new desalinated water and water from Imperial County. Those increases may keep coming.

Agencies served by the Water Authority want to rely less on water beyond their control, so they plan to massively increase the amount of water they produce themselves, mostly by recycling wastewater.

The city of San Diego is the biggest player in this game: It plans to build a system to turn wastewater into drinkable water. That project will cost city customers about $350 million in the next five years alone – and hundreds of millions more in years to come.

As a result, the city expects that over the next two decades, it will be able to cope with hundreds of thousands of new residents without having to buy any more water from the Water Authority than it does today.

Water agencies in North County and East County are working on similar recycled water projects that would make wastewater either drinkable or at least useful for irrigation. The Otay Water District in the southernmost part of the county has been looking into buying water from a desalination plant that would be built in Mexico.

Together, they will all be able to curb their reliance on Water Authority water. The projects will eventually produce as much water as the city of San Diego uses in a year.

Since San Diego’s earliest days, settlers have had trouble finding enough water locally. As the city grew, relying on water from elsewhere became a must. But the reliance came with risk, as San Diego water officials discovered in the 1990s when Metropolitan ordered steep cuts to the region’s supply that were beyond their control. That fueled animosity between the Water Authority and Metropolitan. Gordon Hess, a former Water Authority official and vice chairman of the city of San Diego’s Independent Rates Oversight Committee, said cost is driving local agencies to consider their own water projects.

“Because the Met water supplies have become more expensive and the Water Authority supplies have become more expensive – so it makes these local projects more cost-effective,” he said.

Olivenhain Municipal Water District, which serves 84,000 people in coastal North County, estimates that rates for a typical customer could increase by $35 per month in the next five years because of new charges from the Water Authority.

A typical Olivenhain customer now pays about $80 a month. So, a $35 increase, even over several years, would be quite noticeable.

Kim Thorner, Olivenhain’s general manager, said while the Water Authority is working to make itself more independent from Metropolitan and from the state, many of the authority’s own member agencies are looking to make themselves independent as well.

She said every time an agency embarks on its own project, it looks at the costs, to see if they are reasonable – but also at whether the supply is sustainable. Betting on water from the snowless Sierras and a drying Colorado is no longer safe. Desalinated water is expensive, but it’s steady.

“It is the most expensive supply that San Diego County will have, but 10 years from now, it probably won’t be,” Thorner said. “And that plant will still be running 10 years now, but you also have to take the cost of the water that would not be available – what is the cost of the water that is not there when you go to turn on your tap?”

The full costs of the recycled water programs are not yet known, but they depend on a similar premise: expensive new water treatment systems are worth it, if they guarantee water.

Environmentalists argue water agencies could do more to make sure their customers are saving more water, which would decrease the need for expensive new water projects.

One of the cheapest alternatives to imported water is water from the ground, which costs an agency only the cost of drilling a hole and operating a pump.

Brett Sanders, the general manager of the Lakeside Water District in East County, said the area has been using groundwater since the 1930s but stopped when imported water was cheap around 1990.

“Little by little people started going back to what they could get from their local supplies,” he said. Whether an agency can do this, though, depends on whether the ground in the area even has water.

The Water Authority’s own plans for the region are designed around local agencies developing their own sources of water, said Sandy Kerl, the authority’s deputy general manager. In a long-term rate plan it developed, agencies pay a new flat fee called a “supply reliability charge” that is meant to ensure that even if agencies buy less water, the authority will be able to operate a system that will provide everyone water in a pinch. If an agency begins to depend on groundwater and its wells suddenly run dry, for example, they can come back to the Water Authority for water.

“At the end of the day, if member agencies develop local supplies and those local supplies are not available, those member agencies have the ability to come on to the Water Authority and have their demands met,” Kerl said. “So, it’s kind of like an insurance policy, you don’t get to pay for an insurance policy only when you get the benefit, you have to pay for it to be in existence.”

Correction: An earlier version of this post mischaracterized the Otay Water District’s involvement in a desalination plant in Mexico. It is only looking into buying water from the plant.

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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