By Doug Curlee | Editor at Large
Says there is no other way to avoid budget hit
The San Diego City Council took five and a half hours Wednesday to do what could have been done in five and a half minutes, because the Council really had no viable choice in the matter. There was a 900-pound gorilla looking over their shoulders.
After several hours of testimony on both sides of the issue, the Council voted 7-2 to approve the recommendation of the city’s Public Utilities Department to raise the base rate for water 9.4 percent beginning in January, and increasing the rates annually until 2019. It comes out to a raise of 36 percent over those years.
One major reason for this is the city’s Pure Water program, which is designed to purify used water to drinking water quality. This was actually promoted once before in San Diego, but fell victim to negative public reaction when it was labeled “toilet to tap.”
Advances in technology since then have drastically improved the ability to purify water and make it safe for us to drink.
The other major reason for the increase is the expansion of the city’s purple pipe program to provide treated water that is good for irrigation purposes, and in fact, most purposes short of drinking water.
In truth, practically no one opposed the rate increases themselves, understanding that water is becoming more expensive every day. So much of our water is imported and has to be paid for that it wasn’t really a choice.
A number of people were justifiably curious about why their lawns and plants had to die because Gov. Brown ordered us all to conserve, and we did a good job of that –– maybe too good –– and their water bills will go up anyway. There‘s really no good answer to that.
But those dead plants and lawns bring up another point. Much of our recycled water is not drinking quality, but is more than good enough to water those lawns and plants. Part of the rate increase will go toward more expansion of the purple pipe program already in place.
That’s what started the fight between San Diego and the Otay Water District that consumed much of the attention before the Council.
The Otay Water District has its own recycling plant and its own purple pipe system, which its ratepayers paid for. Otay said the flat rate system unfairly penalized Otay by making it pay twice for the same thing.
“We don’t oppose the rate increase itself,” said Mark Watton, chairman of the Otay Water District. “It’s the recycling double-charge to our ratepayers we have trouble with.”
The rate increase will go to fund the expansion of San Diego’s recycling effort –– the Pure Water program, the wastewater to purple pipe program, and also to fund the operation of the Public Utilities Department, including operations costs, capital building projects, buying imported water and everything else the department does.
Jane Krikorian of the Utility Consumers Action Network said UCAN opposed the rate hikes out of lack of information.
“We think there may be other alternatives that were not presented to the Council,” she said.
At the end of the day, though, there was that 900-pound gorilla in the room that no one could ignore.
That would be the Point Loma Sewage treatment plant.
For decades, the city has been fighting with federal agencies concerned with the environment, especially the Environmental Protection Agency.
The feds have been threatening to force the city to upgrade the water treatment there to what’s called secondary purity. The city has been able to fend that off by aggressively pursuing programs like Pure Water and the purple pipes, getting continuing waivers from federal agencies.
EPA can and does do this. The agency has already forced Los Angeles and San Francisco to spend billions on such upgrades.
To continue getting those waivers, the city must meet a number of “guidelines” from the EPA. Expanding the Pure Water and purple pipe programs will help the city meet those guidelines.
If it does not, here’s the problem –– the 900-pound gorilla.
The EPA can force the city to spend $2 billion to upgrade the water it processes to the secondary stage, and then dump that much purer water into the ocean.
The city’s plan is to use the rate increase money to purify the water at the plant near Miramar, then feed it into the purple pipe system the city will expand. It will never even get to the Point Loma plant.
Council members grumbled a lot about having to vote to do this, but they knew they had no choice. With only Democrat David Alvarez and Republican Scott Sherman dissenting, the council gave the go-ahead to implement the changes in rates.
“It’s a lousy choice and a lousy vote,” said Councilman Mark Kersey, just before voting for it.
Councilmember Lori Zapf summed it up succinctly.
“We have no choice.”
––Doug Curlee is Editor at Large. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.