Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Two small farming communities want to divorce the ­­San Diego County Water Authority and buy cheaper water from Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County.

The Water Authority’s rates are some of the highest in the country, especially for agricultural regions that Fallbrook Public Utility District and Rainbow Municipal Water District serve. That’s why those districts are trying to leave. The Water Authority’s rates have been growing for years, but they’re actually selling a lot less water.

Mostly to blame are the rising costs of transporting Colorado River water or making it new by desalting ocean water.  The Water Authority is staring down billions in debt and will lose a large portion of their sales once the city of San Diego, the Water Authority’s biggest customer, launches its wastewater-to-drinking water recycling program called Pure Water. Most recently, the Water Authority proposed a 14 percent rate hike for 2024, a much higher spike than years prior. If the detachers joined Eastern, they could avoid some of these mounting transportation costs.

Fallbrook and Rainbow, in rural San Diego County’s northern edge, don’t need to build any new pipes or pumps to make the switch to Eastern. They’ll just get a potentially lower bill from a different water seller.

The Water Authority really doesn’t want them to leave. Its main argument has been that if the detachers secede, the other 22-member water districts would have to pick up their share of growing water costs. The detachers argue that, because their service area is so small, the tab wouldn’t be overly burdensome.

The people making the final decision are an obscure government agency called LAFCO, which stands for Local Agency Formation Commission. They’re involved because this is a matter of changing territory between water districts.

LAFCO staff offered three options. The detachers can leave and pay $63 million over five years as an “exit fee” to help reduce the water rate impact on other agencies. They can abandon the effort and stay with the Water Authority. Or, they can delay a decision until LAFCO can do a years-long, audit-style study on the Water Authority.

LAFCOs Were Born Boundary Refs

The Germans surrendered to Allied troops on May 7, 1945, and there were 9.3 million people living in California.

In just 15 years, that number almost doubled. The demand for housing, jobs and public services grew rapidly and spread into sprawling subdivisions. Urban governments’ ability to provide the basics was spread thin. So began a war over suburbia, with both city and county governments vying to annex subdivisions and expand their boundaries and tax base.

Worried over this rapid urban sprawl, former Gov. Pat Brown assembled a team of experts tasked with identifying solutions to interjurisdictional competition. Out of it, LAFCOs were born.

There’s a LAFCO in every California county, comprised of a vote-taking body of elected leaders and members of the public. LAFCOs are like little legislatures, endowed with powers to create new cities or special districts and control how they provide public services. It’s LAFCO that will ultimately decide whether the neighborhood of La Jolla can secede from the city of San Diego.

“If you have the power to control boundaries of cities and special districts, you can control where and when development occurs,” Peter Detwiler, who worked for San Diego’s LAFCO in the 1970s and later under Gov. Jerry Brown, said in an interview.

LAFCOs eventually also became responsible for thinking about reliable, long-term water supplies.

Because a San Diego County Water Authority buyer wants to leave that water sales territory and join another ruled by Eastern, LAFCO must sort-out this water district-crossing deal. Nobody has ever asked the question Rainbow and Fallbrook are asking now, said Keene Simonds, LAFCO’s executive officer, when this issue first arose in 2019.

Who Is San Diego LAFCO

The detachers will need a majority of the eight-member LAFCO board to vote in their favor.

“Like any local government decision, they are political,” Detwiler said. “LAFCOS have a lot of muscle if they want to use it.”

Jim Desmond, a Republican San Diego County Supervisor whose district includes the detachers, chairs the commission. But he also represents cities like Valley Center, a farming community with high water rates already. That area could never detach the same way Fallbrook and Rainbow are attempting to do. It’s sensitive to anything that risks raising their rates even more.

San Diego City Councilman Stephen Witburn serves as vice chair of LAFCO. We already know San Diego is opposed to detachment. A May 22 letter from Mayor Todd Gloria to LAFCO citied increased water rates on the remaining Water Authority members as a top concern.

The detachers have argued that their effect has been overstated, even without the $63 million in exit fees that LAFCO is requiring if they leave.

“Without an exit fee, our impact (on other San Diego water agencies) would only be $1.05 per month per household for (Water Authority) ratepayers, wrote Jack Bebee, general manager at Fallbrook PUD and Tom Kennedy, general manager for Rainbow MUD, in an opinion piece.

While previously neutral on the issue, the board chair of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — an agency that has had its share of policy disputes with the Water Authority — joined its side on detachment. A March 22 letter from Adán Ortega Jr.  said he’s concerned LAFCO’s decision would set a precedent for other water districts that could undermine financial viability of future regional water supplies.

Other LAFCO voting members include San Diego County Supervisor and Republican Joel Anderson, who represents a large swath of rural water districts; Kristi Becker, the deputy mayor of Solana Beach; Dane White, the newly-elected mayor of Escondido; Jo MacKenzie, a land use planner who has worked on water issues in Vista and San Marcos; Baron Willis, the former director of Alpine Fire Protection District; and Andrew Vanderlaan, former fire chief for North County Fire Protection District.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

  1. What many citizens do not realize is that Rainbow and Fallbrook water districts pay for the water to go to San Diego and all areas around the county. For those districts to leave requires the rest of LAFCO to pay for the transportation of the water, not Fallbrook and Rainbow. It is only fair for those districts to leave! Support what is right for north county!

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