For us, this is about fairness.
As you might know, our two water agencies – the Fallbrook Public Utility District and the Rainbow Municipal Water District – are seeking to change water wholesalers so that our customers will no longer be forced to pay millions of dollars for pipelines and other projects that provide no benefit to them.
Over the past decade, Fallbrook and Rainbow water customers have overpaid nearly $50 million to the San Diego County Water Authority compared to the benefits they’ve received, according to a study we commissioned last year. That’s about $2,800 per water customer.
The fact is our ratepayers have been paying far more for their water than they should. This isn’t right, and it needs to end. In Fallbrook, where the percentage of residents with incomes below the poverty level is greater than in the state of California as a whole, our residents can ill-afford to be subsidizing other water districts by paying for projects that exclusively benefit others. Also, our districts have a large percentage of agricultural users who are disproportionately impacted by water rate increases.
To end this overcharging, we are seeking to part ways with the San Diego County Water Authority – a process formally known as detachment – and instead purchase our water from the Eastern Municipal Water District in southern Riverside County. Here, we will pay for the actual cost of our water.
Those opposed to our detachment plans, such as the Water Authority and their surrogates, have made outlandish claims that need to be addressed.
First, they’ve tried to convince our ratepayers, including our agricultural users, that the water from Eastern will be less reliable. This is nonsense. Using the existing water delivery system, we will receive the same water from Eastern through the same pipelines just as we currently do, ensuring that the water will be just as reliable as the water we buy today from the Water Authority.
Second, those opposed to us exercising our legal right to buy our water elsewhere also claim the change would cost ratepayers in the remaining districts a significant amount of money. This is inaccurate as well.
For example, immediately upon detachment, the Water Authority will save tens of millions of dollars since it will no longer be obligated to build infrastructure projects in North County. In the long term, the change would result in only a miniscule increase of approximately 50 cents per month per meter, or just a few pennies per water user – much less than the Water Authority’s average annual rate increases over the last 10 years. Again, this is money ratepayers in these districts should have been paying all along.
If we don’t change water wholesalers, Fallbrook and Rainbow customers will continue to see their water costs escalate in the years to come. They would be forced to pay for things that are unnecessary or don’t serve our areas, such as the Water Authority’s $5 billion Regional Conveyance System.
The proposed system is a massive undertaking that would entail the construction of 130 miles of pipelines and canals from the Colorado River to San Diego County. The project, however, would provide no new water to our region. That’s why 18 of the county’s 24 water districts – including ours – are adamantly opposed to it. And that’s why the Water Authority argument that our detachment will unfairly impact less affluent water users is so disingenuous, since the miniscule increase in water costs from detachment pales in comparison to the price increases that would result from the Water Authority’s pipeline proposal. By leaving the Water Authority, our ratepayers would not have to pay a single additional dime for this boondoggle, should it eventually be approved.
Whether we can switch to Eastern will be up to the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, known as LAFCO, and the voters of our districts. LAFCO, which is governed by local and appointed elected officials, and is charged with determining boundary changes and annexations for public agencies, is currently reviewing our applications to leave the Water Authority. LAFCO is expected to vote on this matter later this year or early next year. If it approves our applications, then the voters of Fallbrook and Rainbow would have the final say through a formal election.
Over the past decade, the Water Authority has imposed on our customers water cost increases averaging 8 percent per year. This is exorbitant by any standard, and it needs to stop. By switching to Eastern, it will.
Again, this is about fairness. Our customers should not be forced to subsidize others. Like any water district, we have the legal right under California law to buy our water from another wholesaler and that’s exactly what we are seeking to do.
Jennifer DeMeo is president of the Fallbrook Public Utility District Board of Directors. Hayden Hamilton is president of the Rainbow Municipal District Board of Directors.