Santa Fe Irrigation approves water rate increases for next three years

Santa Fe Irrigation District office building
(Karen Billing)

The Santa Fe Irrigation District approved three percent water rate increases for the next three years at a Jan. 16 hearing. The first bills will go out to customers on April 1 using a new five-tier residential rate structure that differentiates between meter sizes in higher tiers.

The rate increases aim to help meet the district’s objectives to ensure equity across customer classes, encourage conservation and maintain financial stability as it faces challenges such as the rising costs of imported water. The board’s vote was 4-1 with SFID Director Marlene King voting in opposition. The district provides drinking and irrigation water to about 20,000 residents in Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch.

In accordance with Prop 218, notices about the proposed rate structure were sent out on Nov. 27, 2019 giving customers an opportunity to protest the rate increases. By the end of the Jan. 16 hearing, the district had received 637 written protests—a majority protest would have been 3,250 customers.

SFID Board President Michael Hogan said he believed the new rate structure was the fair result of a long process. In December 2018, after a nine-month cost of service study process, the board voted not to adopt a proposal for a two-tier rate plan. That year the district received 1,254 protests to the rate increases.

Hogan said the board took a step back and re-educated themselves through a modified nine-month, independent cost of service study process in 2019 that he said was more inclusive with ratepayer participation and input, including public workshops and presentations at the Rancho Santa Fe Association and Solana Beach City Council.

Under the new rate structure, SFID customers’ bi-monthly bills will reflect a fixed charge and a volumetric rate depending on their usage. The fixed charge per bill is escalated to larger meters. While the rate revenues include a 3 percent increase, not all customers will see their bill increase by three percent.

“I think we’ve done everything we can to make this as equitable a rate structure as we can make it,” said SFID Director David Petree, who also voted against the 2018 proposal and still prefers a three-tiered structure to the five tiers. “Even though I wish it was a little different, I think this is a good, fair compromise on both issues I was concerned about which were rate structure and cost.”

“Less than 10 percent of the residents protested this, that means 90 percent is OK with it so I’m OK with it,” said SFID Director Andy Menshek.

SFID Director King, who represents Rancho Santa Fe, spoke at length about why she opposed the rate structure including the large overhead costs that are paid by larger properties in the higher tiers. She did not agree with the fact that customers with regularly-sized city lots should pay a “significantly smaller percentage of district overhead simply because the properties in the rural, hotter eastern service area are larger.”

King was also troubled by the agriculture/irrigation rate, an increase of 16 percent over the current rate. She noted that the RSF Golf Course has reduced its water use by 30 percent in the past 11 years and Lomas Santa Fe Country Club by 27 percent and yet will see their rates go up.

At the hearing, public comment took the form of Rancho Santa Fe vs. Solana Beach with many Rancho Santa Fe residents accusing the board’s “coastal directors” of not representing their interests, some even proposing the district change its name to remove the “Santa Fe” from its name and replace it with “Solana.”

Customers told stories of their efforts to conserve not being rewarded by the proposed rates.

“The board has encouraged or cajoled us to change the amount of water we use, this decreased the revenue and then you up the charges,” Rancho Santa Fe resident Laurence McKinley said. “The water district bill is the biggest curse of living in this area.”

A few speakers from Solana Beach spoke in favor of the tiered rate as it discourages “frivolous” water consumption” and promotes conservation by charging higher rates for greater water usage.

“Residents using large amounts of water for non-essential uses such as irrigating expansive landscaping should incur higher rates than lighter users regardless of the size of their meters,” said Solana Beach City Council member Kelly Harless.

“We’re not begrudging people that have larger lots but when you have a larger lot or have a golf course you understand that you’re going to have to pay more,” said Kristi Becker, a Solana Beach City Council member and member of the Climate Action Commission. “In all fairness, this multi-tiered rate is trying to do the right thing. We need to conserve…we’ve got to stop throwing away a precious resource. I don’t think we want to be known as the water district that uses the highest daily household water use per person in California.”

After going through the process for two years, Hogan said the most “disturbing” thing has been the division that has formed between Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe.

“I view this as one district. I’m trying to find the balance because of the characteristics and the profile of the district,” Hogan said. “You may not agree with that decision ultimately with regards to the rate but I assure you, it’s done with the best interest of everyone in the district.”