A bill in the state Assembly would make it harder for local water districts to leave their regional partnerships if they’re seeking cheaper water rates. That’s what two small, North County farming communities have been fighting to do for the last three years.
Rep. Tasha Boerner’s bill, AB 530, seeks to change the County Water Authority Act by requiring a countywide vote before any water district could buy water from a different county.
Background: Rainbow Municipal Water District and Fallbrook Public Utility District want to ditch the San Diego County Water Authority to buy cheaper water from Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County. The Water Authority has fought the decision arguing their departure would force the remaining 22 water district customers to pick up the tab for all the major investments the agency has made in recent decades – raising water rates for everyone that remains.
San Diego’s Local Agency Formation Commission is slated to make a decision on the matter on June 5. What LAFCO decides was supposed to be final, appealable only to the courts.
That’s where it get’s confusing. If passed, AB 530 would require a majority of San Diego County voters to approve such departures. Both sides are speculating how the bill would affect LAFCO’s decision. But no one really knows.
The city of San Diego is a sponsor of the bill, and it’s also home to 41 percent of registered county voters. Those voters could go a long way to vetoing the desires of water districts that want to leave.
Mayor Todd Gloria called AB 530 “prudent, good government legislation that promotes democracy and will help protect the residents of San Diego County,” in a May 17 letter to Boerner.
The other side: Tom Kennedy, general manager at Rainbow Municipal Water District, called the bill a “bald face attempt” by the city of San Diego to turn the County Water Authority into something like SANDAG, where the city dominates everything at the expense of people living in outlying areas. The city of San Diego also has the most voting power on the Water Authority board.
“Now they’re saying, unless the County Water Authority allows you to go, you’re stuck. It’s the roach motel of water agencies. You can get in, but you can never get out,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy called San Diego’s position hypocritical because the city will eventually buy 50 percent less water from the Water Authority once its wastewater-to-drinking water project comes online, diminishing its dependence on the Water Authority and its ever-rising water rates.
Nick Serrano, Gloria’s deputy chief of staff and a Water Authority board member representing the city, said Rainbow and Fallbrook and other agencies shouldn’t “leave the table” in the face of the rising cost of water. The Water Authority recently proposed a 14 percent rate hike for 2024.
“We made all these investments over 20 years … We have to face what’s happening to the region,” Serrano said. “We’ll need to work together to figure out what we’re going to do going forward.”