File illustration by Adriana Heldiz

Two small farming communities want to bail on buying water in San Diego because it’s too expensive, but that means everyone else would have to pick up part of their tab. 

Water in San Diego is expensive because it costs a lot to import from the Colorado River and the Sierra Nevada mountains – the transportation of which is managed by the San Diego County Water Authority. San Diegans support that cost by paying their water bills every month to 24 different water districts and the price of water varies between them. 

So, if two of these 24 water districts want to leave the Water Authority and buy their water somewhere else, the remaining water districts still have to pay for this massive system of pipes and pumps plus whatever the defectors were chipping in. 

San Diego’s Local Agency Formation Commission – or LAFCO, the judge and jury over this water divorce decision – did the math

Under their estimates, it’d add an $2.20 per month to the average San Diego water bill if Rainbow Municipal Water District and Fallbrook Public Utility District left the Water Authority. The cost would vary based on who’s charging. City of San Diego water customers, for instance, would pay less, about $1.05 extra per month should these two water districts depart. But customers in Yuima Municipal Water District, many of which are farmers that buy lots of water and pay some of the most expensive water rates in San Diego, could pay an extra $18 extra per month. 

But the true cost is offset by an exit fee which LAFCO is requiring them to pay to leave the Water Authority – to the tune of about $24 million over five years.

Rainbow and Fallbrook dispute LAFCO’s math arguing that their impact to water bills would be small, around $1.33 of the regional average monthly water bill, which is about $100. The water districts estimate they could guarantee a 30 percent water savings to their own customers on average, if they didn’t have to pay that extra exit fee, by leaving San Diego and joining Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County.

How We Got Here

Most of San Diego’s water is brought in from the Colorado River, the Sierra Nevada mountains or desalted ocean water. Getting it here is why water rates are so high in San Diego. 

Before a big drought led to huge water cuts in the 1990s, San Diego bought almost all its water from one place: the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. After that drought, the 24 water districts that make up the Water Authority combined the buying power of their residents to make huge investments in water source diversification. 

The Water Authority built a desalination plant, purchased a bunch of Colorado River water from farmers in Imperial Valley and carved out reservoirs for emergency water storage to make sure the water cuts of the 1990s would never happen again. It worked, at least during the most recent years-long drought. When northern California cities and a swath of Los Angeles faced mandatory water cutbacks, San Diego celebrated its “drought-proof” supplies

But now San Diegans are paying for all that investment with some of the highest water rates in the country and almost $2 billion in principal debt the Water Authority owes on its water infrastructure. 

The Water Authority makes most of its money on selling water to its 24 water district customers. The recent, drought-breaking wet winter means San Diegans need to buy less water to sprinkle on their fields or lawns. And so, the Water Authority’s customers face a 14 percent increase on their water bills next year to continue paying-off their water reliability debts. 

The Water Divorce Got Political

These small North County water districts already feel that squeeze and that’s why they want out. But since they filed their application to divorce from the Water Authority three years ago, big political players like the city of San Diego (the Water Authority’s biggest customer) and the board chair at Metropolitan Water District are putting pressure on LAFCO to force them to stay in and pay their fair share. 

Even state lawmaker Rep. Tasha Boerner introduced a bill that would make it much harder for Rainbow and Fallbrook to leave — by requiring not only a vote of the LAFCO board, but a countywide vote of the public. If that bill passes, they might need a majority “yes” from both votes to leave San Diego. 

The LAFCO commission, chaired by San Diego County Supervisor Jim Desmond, votes June 5 on whether to let Rainbow and Fallbrook out.

Join the Conversation


  1. If Rainbow and Fallbrook leave there should be a stipulation that if they want to come back they have to pay back all infrastructure payments they missed after leaving. It’s easy to envision a scenario where they can’t get enough (cheaper) water on the future and want to come back.

    1. I’m wondering why City of San Diego customers would pay less if Rainbow and Fallbrook leafy.

      1. Hi Carrie: I believe city of San Diego customers would pay less because they have the largest customer base — that mostly use water residentially — over which to spread these costs. Yuima, which would pay some of the highest potential fees, has a much smaller ratepayer base that use a lot of water for agriculture. But mind you, Yuima’s bills are larger on average.

  2. Perhaps using the term “divorce” is not the correct one to describe what is going on here. Earlier stories headlines used the term “succession”, which may be more accurate. The question that is not being asked is “why does San Diego County have 24 different water agencies?” The answer is that over time, as developers wanted to build new housing subdivision in outlying rural areas, the local governments involved refused to extend water services to their new projects. So they funded incorporation efforts to create new cities in those areas, along with new water supply retail agencies to provide water to their sprawl developments.

    A great question to explore would be “Does the county still need 24 different small water retail supply agencies, when we only need one wholesale water supply agency, the County Water Authority?” Right now, the multiplicity of small retail water agencies are making water customers pay millions of dollars in unnecessary administrative costs.

    Each of these little fiefdoms and their boards and manager will resist any effort to make them consolidate their efforts, so it would take an agency like the state or the county to determine whether or not agency consolidation makes sense for water customers. But its something that probably should be done.

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