Plan to raise water rates voted down by Santa Fe Irrigation District board

Santa Fe Irrigation District and San Dieguito Water District’s San Dieguito Reservoir.
(Karen Billing)

A plan to raise rates by an average of 3 percent per year over the next three years was voted down Thursday, Dec. 20, by the Santa Fe Irrigation District Board of Directors.

The 3-2 vote by the board followed an eight-month process that included a series of public meetings and a rate study prepared by a consultant, which determined the district’s revenue needs in the coming years, and recommended a new rate structure to generate the additional funds.

Board members Marlene King, Ken Dunford and David Petree voted against the rate plan, while board members Michael Hogan and Andy Menshek voted for the proposal, which was recommended by district staff.

Meanwhile, the Rancho Santa Fe Association, which objected to the new rate plan as well as the district’s current rate structure, filed a lawsuit against the Santa Fe Irrigation District on Wednesday, Dec. 19, in Vista Superior Court.

The Association’s lawsuit alleges the district’s current rate plan does not comply with state law, and it seeks repayment of what it claims were fees and charges that have been illegally imposed by the district.

The board voted on the rate plan after a public hearing, during which a number of district residents spoke against the proposal. Some questioned whether the district had done enough to cut its operating costs, while others bemoaned the high price of water that has prompted residents to remove or stop watering outdoor landscaping, including citrus groves.

“It’s all because the rates have gotten out of hand,” said Holly Manion, a resident of Rancho Santa Fe who works in the real estate business.

Others said they had cut back on their water use, as demanded by the state and the water district during the recent California drought, only to see their water bills continue to rise.

Under the district’s proposed rate plan, water users would have been charged in two tiers, based on their water use. A lower rate was proposed for water use up to 37 units over two months (a unit equals 100 cubic feet of water, or 748 gallons), and a higher rate was proposed for water use over 37 units in a two-month billing period.

The district provides water to about 20,000 residents of Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch. The Association and its members contend the district’s current four-tier rate structure, and the proposed two-tier rate plan, unfairly penalize them with higher water rates because their larger properties require more water for irrigation. Parcels at the west end of the district, in Solana Beach, are generally smaller and require less water for outdoor landscaping.

The Association has argued that a single uniform rate for all water use would be the most fair for all district residents.

The Association’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of members who are irrigation district customers, as well as itself, because the organization buys water from the district for its golf course and other landscaped public areas.

The lawsuit alleges that the district’s rate structure violates California law because it results in charges that are higher than the cost of providing water service. The lawsuit also argues that the district blends its water supply, from both local and imported sources, so its tiered rates are not justified.

Board members who voted against the new rate plan gave different reasons. King suggested the new tiers are unfair because the costs are shifted to higher users, which she said amounted to a subsidy. Petree, however, pointed to the impact of the proposed changes on those who use less water.

Board member Andy Menshek said the state is imposing conservation mandates on residents that will get stricter in the comings years, and he pointed out that the Santa Fe Irrigation District and Beverly Hills consistently have the highest per capita water use in the state.

He said all district customers need water for human consumption, health and safety, and fire suppression, but any additional water use for outdoor landscaping is discretionary.

For those with large properties who feel their bills are too high, he said, “All they have to do is don’t water their plants and they pay the same as everyone else. If you can’t afford to water your bushes, don’t.”

The Association also encouraged its members to file written protests against the proposed rate plan.

As of Thursday, the cutoff to file written protests, the district had received 1,254 protests. In order to block the rate increase, a majority of district customers, or more than 3,200 residents, would have had to submit written protests.

Attorney Ben Benumof, who represents the Association, said he and his clients were cautiously optimistic that the district will re-examine its rate structure and come up with a fairer plan.

“Today was a good resolution. We asked them to put the brakes on and they did. This will open up dialogue. We’re always willing to talk,” Benumof said.

Hogan, president of the Santa Fe board, said after the meeting that the board will discuss how to move forward at its meeting in January. He said in his opinion, the Association’s lawsuit will not affect the course of rate deliberations going forward. He also said he is convinced that both the current rate structure and the proposed plan that was defeated complied with state requirements that fees must be in line with the cost of providing service.

He also plans to ask for a forecast to determine how rejection of the proposed rate plan will affect the district’s finances.

“I am disappointed in the board’s decision,” said Hogan, but said the board will work toward achieving consensus on how to move forward.