"Dissent is not tolerated in San Diego’s water community,” says Steve Erie, professor of political science at UCSD and director of its Urban Studies program. And a recent San Diego County Grand Jury report appears appears to be no exception.
“Reduce Dependence on Imported Water” came out on May 15. One searches the report in vain for an opposing point of view. “This report is a dereliction of duty by a not-so-grand jury,” says Erie. “It has the fingerprints of the [San Diego County] Water Authority all over it. The grand jury is frequently a ‘pass-through’ agency, if you get my drift. That’s what the Water Authority claims it is with [Southern California’s regional] Metropolitan Water District’s rate increases.”
As of last year, Metropolitan supplied 47 percent of local water, still the largest single source for the county. But that amount is down from 95 percent in 1995. The reduction was accomplished largely through a deal San Diego made in 2003 with the Imperial Irrigation District.
The new grand-jury report praises the local Water Authority’s newest efforts to diversify supplies for greater “water reliability.” It highlights conservation, aquifers, and storage but focuses mainly on desalination and water reclamation.
Although the “toilet to tap” attack on water reclamation tarnished its image, desalination is popular, according to the Water Authority. Polls the agency sponsored show 68 percent of respondents are prepared to pay higher water bills “to add desalinated seawater to the supply, including 58 percent who said that they would pay an extra five dollars per month.” After years of planning, the Carlsbad desalination plant, to be built and operated by the Poseidon corporation on the southwest edge of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, was approved late last year.
According to the grand jury, which received all cost estimates from the Water Authority, the Carlsbad plant will produce 56,000 acre-feet of potable water annually by 2016, or 50 million gallons per day and 8 to 10 percent of the county’s water.
But will the costs of these new “water independence” moves be worth it, especially when added to what the Imperial Valley’s Colorado River water already has done to San Diegans? According to the U-T San Diego on May 26, local consumers “have seen rates soar between 7.5 percent and 15.4 percent for untreated water and 7.7 percent to 18.1 percent for treated water during each of the past five years.”
On the costs of desalination, the difference between Steve Erie’s views and “the company line” are striking. The effort requires significant expenditures for upgrading the Twin Oaks Valley Treatment Plant in San Marcos and the pipelines to move the water there. Including dollars for energy to run the desalination process, the Water Authority estimates total costs will come to between $2042 to $2290 per acre-foot “in 2012 dollars,” for an increase in an average household’s water bill of $5 to $7 per month.
“While the water initially will cost more than current sources,” the grand jury claims, “analysis by the [Water Authority] indicates that imports from the [Metropolitan Water District] could be more expensive than desalinated seawater by the late 2020s.” Earlier in the report, the grand jury states that Metropolitan’s “water costs are increasing at approximately a 6% yearly rate.”
But “the Water Authority,” says Erie, “assumes the worst-case scenario for the Metropolitan Water Department’s long-term water costs and the best-case scenario for long-term desalination costs.” They then “arrive at a highly questionable conclusion that by the late 2020s Metropolitan’s water might cost more than desal[inated] water. Will Metropolitan’s water costs inexorably rise at 6 percent (or more) per year for the next 15 years? Highly unlikely. Will desal[ination] costs (including power costs) remain the same and not increase for the next 15 years? Highly unlikely. This is wishful thinking at its worst.”
Erie expresses a similar disagreement over the agency’s costs for reclaimed water. The grand jury says it learned that “the total cost of potable quality reclaimed water would likely be about $2000 per acre-foot. That is costlier than water purchased from the [Metropolitan Water District], which totals about $1000 per acre-foot, according to the Water Authority.”
So, “San Diego ratepayers,” says Erie, “will be paying $1000 per acre-foot more for relying on local reclaimed water than MWD-supplied water.
“And this presumes,” he adds, “that the price of reclaimed water (and the costs associated with producing it) does not increase.”
Erie has been doing battle with the Water Authority for over 16 years. In 1996, he wrote an editorial for the Los Angeles Times that the paper titled “A San Diego ‘Chinatown’ with Los Angeles as Victim.” The piece was largely a criticism of the Water Authority’s efforts to purchase water from the Imperial Valley. As Erie would later point out in his books Beyond Chinatown (2006) and Paradise Plundered (2011), a needy buyer and a fat seller eventually drove up the price. And, since San Diego had never built its own pipeline to the Imperial Valley, it also had to pay Metropolitan for “wheeling” rights in its pipeline.
The result, says Erie, has been that San Diego has for years paid higher water rates than it would have by staying loyal to Metropolitan. The price Erie paid, he says, was being “heckled” by Water Authority “truth squads” whenever it was announced he’d speak about the Imperial Irrigation deal in public.
In 2010, and again last year, the Water Authority filed lawsuits against the Metropolitan Water District, claiming unfair pricing of its supplies to San Diego County. The 25 Metropolitan member agencies other than San Diego’s have been alarmed about the lawsuits, leading some of their managers to discuss with each other how they ought to respond. After learning about the discussions, the San Diego Water Authority recently complained to the court that a “secret society” had been formed to thwart its interests.
But Erie contends that the Water Authority’s motivation for the lawsuits is to recoup “staggering” costs that its deal with the Imperial Water District brought about. Desalination and water reclamation look to him like the latest excess in a quest for local water independence “at all costs.”