The San Diego City Council’s decision earlier this month to hike recycled water rates was just another step backward for recycled water in South County, a region that houses San Diego County’s largest recycled water distribution system.

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The city of San Diego raised its wholesale recycled water rate by 117 percent. The city’s largest customer, Otay Water District, will feel the biggest impact.

To give some history, Otay started requiring recycled water to be used in the Eastlake area of Chula Vista 30 years ago. Otay pioneered large-scale recycled water use in San Diego County. Since that time, the Eastlake area has grown exponentially and quickly outstripped Otay’s ability to produce sufficient recycled water at our Ralph Chapman Treatment Plant in Spring Valley.

Because of that and the fact the city of San Diego needed customers for its South Bay Water Reclamation Plant, we agreed to buy 6 million gallons a day from its plant (on a take or pay basis) and build a pipeline and other infrastructure (at a cost of about $40 million) to get the water from the plant. We started receiving that water in 2007. In fact, Otay Water District purchases 99.7 percent of the recycled water produced at SBWRP.

It was a good situation for everyone, as San Diego had a big customer to use the water and all of the recycled water we sold avoided the need to purchase increasingly more expensive potable water from the Metropolitan Water District. Otay Water District even distributes recycled water to property owners in in the city of San Diego boundaries in the Otay Mesa area, where it’s more cost effective for us to do so.

As we all know by now, we are in a drought of historic proportions. Although San Diego County has done a much better job than the rest of the state in preparing for it, we still have had to cut back due to Gov. Jerry Brown’s mandatory conservation measures. At the same time, the cost of the water we do purchase is increasingly expensive, with rates rising far faster than the rate of inflation. Between the conservation measures and the cost of water itself, customers of Otay Water District, as well as people all over the county, have cut back more than I think anyone would have predicted, often times easily surpassing the governor’s targets (these are the latest figures released by State Water Resources Control Board).

Although these figures reflect residential water use, we have also experienced declining sales in recycled water, even though they aren’t subject to the same conservation measures. This has resulted in Otay Water District paying for water that it doesn’t use from the city of San Diego under our take or pay contract. The increasing recycled water rates will only exacerbate that situation.

There are still large undeveloped areas in eastern Chula Vista, including near Otay Lakes and Otay Mesa, land that would typically be a great candidate for expansion of our recycled water system. One of those locations is a 2,000-home project that’s to be built just north of Otay Lakes, known as the Otay Ranch Resort Village. Although the project’s not in San Diego city limits, the city gets to weigh in, as it owns the adjacent Otay Lakes.

The city of San Diego effectively halted installation of recycled water for the project, citing concerns about potential salt from recycled water runoff that would drain into the lakes and create more treatment costs. Never mind that the odds of that happening to any significant degree are remote, as excessive irrigation runoff from landscaping is prohibited.

Ultimately, Otay Water District reluctantly agreed that the project wouldn’t be required to use recycled water. It was a real wasted opportunity to expand our recycled water system. The decision will result in having potable water used for landscaping in the project, a huge step backward.

Otay Water District also has a large recycled water distribution system in the Otay Mesa area. We had started not requiring new projects to have recycled water installed as a condition of development and have issued a temporary moratorium on the installation of new recycled water meters within Otay Mesa service area. The moratorium will likely now become permanent because the cost to expand the distribution system now outweighs the benefits, thanks to those steep increases by the city of San Diego.

Because of the city’s hike on recycled water rates and declining revenues, our board voted to raise rates by 9.9 percent effective March 2016. That was after Otay Water District staff found cuts equaling approximately $1.1 million. The board also formed a new committee to find additional cost savings and minimize further rate increases.

We should be expanding and using recycled water for landscaping. The city’s decision to jack up the cost of recycled water is forcing us to head in the wrong direction. The losers aren’t only Otay Water District customers, but everyone in San Diego County as we will need more imported water or, heaven forbid, desalinated water from the soon to be opened Carlsbad Desalination Plant that costs over 100 percent more than water we can buy from the Metropolitan Water District.

Mark Robak is a board member of the Otay Water District. Robak’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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