With nearly 100 years of combined experience working on important regional issues across San Diego County, we wanted to share some observations about a proposal currently pending among our region’s water providers.
The Fallbrook Public Utility District and Rainbow Municipal Water District have filed applications to leave the San Diego County Water Authority and instead get their water from an agency in Riverside County.
First and foremost, this is a regional decision that has regional implications. Rainbow and Fallbrook’s plan for leaving for Riverside will raise water bills on every family and business in San Diego County, all while our economy is trying to recover from a recession caused by the pandemic.
A little bit of history is appropriate.
In the early 1990s, the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California voted to drastically cut our county’s water supply due to a statewide drought. It resulted in a huge financial hit to our region’s economy and negatively impacted our quality of life.
Our region resolved that “never again” would we be in this vulnerable position. Rather, we banded together and made the conscious decision to invest in water supplies that we could control.
Over the next 30 years, the water authority and its member agencies built one of the most secure water systems in all of California. Together we constructed the largest dam raise in America, forged historic agriculture-to-urban water conservation and transfer agreements, conserved more water by lining hundreds of miles of earthen canals, and built the largest ocean desalination plant in the Americas.
Representatives from all corners of San Diego County had a say in each of these historic investments and have been enjoying the water supply benefits ever since.
In every case, the region was making an investment in our county’s future. This was not without risk, but water leaders and stakeholders decided that incurring the costs of a reliable water supply was far better than waiting for the next drought and subsequent reduction in our Los Angeles-based water allocation.
Despite these collaborative decisions — and the benefits they’ve provided to every water user in San Diego County — Fallbrook and Rainbow now want to change the rules midstream. They propose to leave the water authority without paying their share of investments made to serve their customers.
As a result, everyone else in San Diego County will be forced to pick up their tab. To the tune of millions of dollars each year. This in turn will raise water rates across San Diego County.
We understand the desire of Fallbrook and Rainbow to save their customers money. That’s why a working group of regional water leaders is meeting with the general managers of these two agencies to see if there’s a way to meet the needs of all of San Diego County’s 3.3 million residents and our $253 billion economy.
The water authority’s board of directors approved a resolution in May 2020 providing Fallbrook and Rainbow with a fair path to leave San Diego County if they choose to do so after all the facts are in. The four-part resolution reflects the wisdom and forethought of the decisions made back in the 1990s.
First, the detachment must not harm residents in Fallbrook and Rainbow. These customers must be fully informed that even if rates for MWD water are lower in the first year, that same MWD water could be far more expensive or even unavailable in the future.
Second, it must be proven that detachment will not cause water bills to increase for customers elsewhere throughout the county.
Third, detachment must not negatively impact the environment. That means any necessary infrastructure to join with Riverside must be thoroughly studied and mitigated and the move should not increase reliance on water imported from hundreds of miles away from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
Fourth, detachment must be structured in a way that ensures San Diego County does not lose any of its voting power at MWD. This is critical to protect against unnecessary rate and property tax increases imposed by the Los Angeles-based wholesaler.
The water authority board also voted to ask the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission to allow all voters in the county to be able to vote on any Fallbrook or Rainbow detachment. This is only fair given all of San Diego’s water customers are paying for the decisions of the past.
The commission is expected to decide this matter early next year. Fairness requires that the rest of the county not be harmed by any decision on this critical issue.
Keith Lewinger represents the Carlsbad Municipal Water District board on the San Diego County Water Authority’s board of directors. He was general manager of the Fallbrook Public Utility District from 1999-2011.
Mel Katz represents the City of Del Mar on the San Diego County Water Authority’s board of directors. He is co-founder and CEO of Manpower Staffing Services of San Diego. He serves on the Board of Governors for the San Diego Foundation. He was chairman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce in 1992 as the county planned its response to historic droughts.