San Diego County Water Authority headquarters
San Diego County Water authority headquarters in Kearny Mesa. Courtesy of the authority

The San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors have approved a permanent special agricultural water rate structure that offers lower water rates to farmers in exchange for lower water supply reliability.

The program will take effect January 1, 2021, and the water authority will work with its 24 member agencies to implement the program by providing program details, such as qualifying criteria and the signup process.

Participants will pay $1,295 per acre-foot for treated water, while municipal and industrial users will pay $1,769 per acre-foot. Farmers and growers who participate in the program will receive a lower level of water service during water shortages or emergencies. That allows the water authority to reallocate those supplies to commercial and industrial customers who pay for full reliability benefits. In exchange, participating farmers are exempt from fixed water storage and supply reliability charges.

Participants in the existing transitional water rate program will be allowed to take part in the new program on a temporary basis while being screened for eligibility. Member agencies have six months, through June 30, 2021, to verify eligibility for existing customers for the new program.

“This unique program will benefit all regional water users and the county’s robust agricultural economy,” said Jim Madaffer, Water Authority board chair. “It helps farmers sustain their operations — and thousands of jobs — while favoring residential and commercial water customers in the event of future water supply reductions.”

The authority has provided lower-cost water to growers in exchange for lower reliability since October 2008, when the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California began phasing out a similar program. Since that time, the transitional water authority program continued with a series of extensions that expire at the end of 2020.

The new permanent special agricultural rate was recommended by the authority’s Fiscal Sustainability Task Force, which is assessing a variety of issues to ensure the agency’s long-term financial health.

Regional farming leaders provided input on the parameters of the new program, which will be reevaluated in five years to assess current and forecasted demands and supplies.

— City News Service