By Karen Billing
Stephenie Caughlin has owned her two-and-a-half-acre farm high on a hill off Arroyo Sorrento Road in Carmel Valley since 1978. For the last 24 years she has operated Seabreeze Organic Farms on that pristine land, offering farm-to-home delivery of vegetables, herbs, flowers, fruit and poultry.
About 15 years ago, her water bill was $200 a month. Despite making a 20 percent decrease in water use as urged by the city San Diego, she is now seeing a monthly water bill of $2,500.
“It just cripples our business,” Caughlin said. “We can’t charge $12 for a head of lettuce.”
Caughlin held a discussion at her farm on June 23 to get a dialogue going with her neighbors and customers about the upcoming San Diego County Water Authority vote on June 28 to raise untreated water rates by 9.7 percent over the 2012 rate. She invited District 1 City Council member Sherri Lightner and Teresa Penunuri from the San Diego County Water Authority to offer some insight.
“We’ve gone through a couple of pretty bad draughts and we San Diegans have been asked to cut back on water,” Caughlin said. “We’ve done our job and cut back.”
“The city of San Diego came through on conservation. Single family homeowners did a phenomenal job,” Lightner said of achieving a 35 percent reduction in water usage. “That buys time…but we need to take control. It does affect quality of life and whatever economic development we have in the future. If we can’t provide water, we’ll be in a bad way. We need to keep the drumbeat going that we need improvements in our water system.”
Lightner has been an active participant in helping to create a new “Comprehensive Policy for Sustainable Water Supply” in San Diego.
Lightner said she believes that the city needs to establish guiding principles to ensure that the water supply remains both secure and affordable, develop a local sustainable supply and reach milestones for conservation.
The city’s guiding principles for water don’t include language about current challenges, such as climate change or water restrictions from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. The guidelines also don’t include the use of new technologies or the use of public-private partnerships.
Lightner’s policy highlights a development of a diverse local supply, including conservation, desalination, greywater and rainwater collection, and wastewater recycling. It also stresses collaboration between local and regional businesses, agencies, and other partners to secure water reliability and rate structures that encourage conservation and discourage waste.
Penunuri talked about how the water authority is in the process of negotiation with a private desalination plant in Carlsbad. The water authority would be able to purchase water from the plant and deliver it to the region to help reduce costs. The plan is currently under public review.
They are also looking at the potential of building their own desalination plant at Camp Pendleton, twice the size of the Carlsbad plant, that would be complete by 2018 or 2019.
Three main factors are driving the water authority’s rate increases: first, the rate increases from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region’s largest imported water supplier. In April they approved an average 5 percent rate increase for 2013 and for the water authority resulted in an actual 8.5 percent increase in MWD-related costs.
MWD also continues to charge the water authority for transporting its independent Colorado River water to the San Diego region.
The rates are also driven upward by planned debt service costs on the water authority’s $3.5 billion costs to improve its infrastructure of dams, pipelines, a treatment plant and other projects. These costs will increase by $21 million in 2013.
Lastly, the rates will also reflect the water authority receiving more water from the Imperial Irrigation District, considered more reliable than MWD and less susceptible to cutbacks due to shortages.
To help mitigate the impact of these proposed increased costs, the water authority is proposing a one-year reduction in its senior lien debt service coverage ratio. Without this, the necessary rate increase would be 17.5 percent. The authority has also made workforce reductions, deferred construction projects and made other cuts to control their costs.
Lightner said people can get involved in the water authority’s current suit against MWD for overcharging San Diego in its 2011 and 2012 rates.
“Our region pays for more of the increases for improvements to the system and other jurisdictions don’t pay increases,” Lightner said.
San Diego ratepayers will be overcharged by $40 million in 2012, growing close to $57 million in 2013 and up to $217 million annually by 2021.
The case is currently being heard in San Francisco Superior Court. More information on the rate challenge is available at sdcwa.org/mwdrate-challenge.
To learn more about Seabreeze Organic Farm, visit stepheniefarm.com