Environment Report: Why Your Water Bill Might Spike

Original article from the Voice of San Diego, written by MacKenzie Elmer on July 27, 2020

The San Diego County Water Authority approved a 5 percent increase in rates, but argued that it could have been much higher. Plus whale watchers are befuddled by a beluga sighting. And more in our biweekly roundup of environmental news.

San Diego’s water utility is preparing to absorb a five percent spike in rates this year despite cries from elected officials to freeze costs during a global pandemic.

Why? The blame often gets passed up the proverbial pipeline.

About three-quarters of San Diego’s drinking water comes from the Colorado River via pipes and aqueducts controlled by the Metropolitan Water District, based in Los Angeles. Since it controls much of the lifeline, it’s often blamed for an increase in rates and that’s partially what happened this year.

San Diego County Water Authority, which has long dreamed of cutting its umbilical cord to L.A., said they were initially facing an increase of more than 6 percent. But due to some fancy financial footwork, officials said they forced the overall increase to 4.9 percent for its 24 member agencies, which includes the city of San Diego.

The San Diego County Water Authority is a quasi-governmental agency, and functions as a kind of water supply middleman to a region with already limited water resources. At first glance, it looks like the San Diego region is in fairly good shape water-wise for the year ahead.

But for an agency that survives on the sale of water, too much is not necessarily a good thing.

What’s Causing Financial Pressure

The Water Authority said its sales earlier this year dropped 14 percent, in part because Southern California had a really nice, wet winter, meaning the reservoirs and soils aren’t as parched as they have been during past droughts. Farmers don’t need to irrigate as much, and the same goes for residents sprinkling their lawns.

Another reason for the drop in demand: the COVID-19 pandemic shut down businesses and industries that would otherwise buy and consume a lot of water. Across the country, drinking-water utilities are expecting a $13.9 billion hit during the pandemic, according to a study by industry associations.

What’s Relieving the Pressure (Some of It, Anyhow)

To curb its dependence on L.A., the Water Authority buys 10 percent of its supply from the Poseidon desalination plant, which sucks up sea water and makes it drinkable.

But an abnormally-long red tide event bloomed along the coast this spring. What brought bedazzling bioluminescent nighttime waves also caused hell for the fine microfilters that separate salt from the water molecule at the privately-owned plant in Carlsbad.

The whole plant had to shut down for two weeks, spokeswoman Jessica Jones confirmed. That turned out to be an unexpected blessing for the Water Authority because, under its contract with Poseidon, if the desal plant can’t deliver then the Water Authority doesn’t have to pay.

Poseidon is the Water Authority’s most expensive water supply, at $2,800 per acre foot. (One-acre foot is roughly enough to cover a football field in a foot of water. Two four-person families use about an acre foot of water each year.) Water from L.A.-based Metropolitan Water Authority costs $1,309 per acre foot, by comparison, the Water Authority said.

Poseidon is contracted to provide up to 56,000-acre feet per year and the two-week lapse amounted to about $15 million in savings for the Water Authority.

The Water Authority also dipped into its rainy day reserve fund up to a limit set by its board of directors to keep the rate increase for consumers lower.

“The one cost we can’t do anything about is that from Metropolitan (Water Authority),” said Pierce Rossum, the Water Authority’s rate and debt manager.

Metropolitan proposed a 3 percent increase in 2021 and a 4 percent increase in 2022. The Water Authority’s board OK’d the 5 percent rate increase during its June meeting.

San Diego City Council President Georgette Gómez raised alarm over the proposed increase (or any increase for that matter) in a June 24 letter to the board’s chair, Jim Madaffer. Gómez said she’s “deeply concerned” about any rate increase as residents grapple with COVID-19.

“These impacts fall hardest on our low-income residents who are suffering great harm to their livelihoods and families,” Gómez wrote.

Families likely won’t feel it right away, though.

San Diego’s Public Utilities Department said it would absorb the $7.5 million needed to collectively meet the rate increase for the time being, drawing on its savings and some of the cash the city made by selling the Mission Valley stadium to San Diego State University, said Arian Collins, a spokesman for the department.

Before any actual rate spike shows up on your water bill, the department has to conduct a study analyzing and justifying the cost of getting you water. It’s something the state requires and is reviewed by consumer advocates as a layer of accountability.

It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that the proposed rate increases from authorities on high are just that — proposed. Both the Metropolitan Water District and San Diego County Water Authority are going to be meeting again in the fall to reassess whether they need to make adjustments because of the unpredictable economic conditions of COVID-19.

Nobody Puts Baby Beluga In A Corner

This is a month old, but I want to share it anyhow. Whale watchers spotted a 15-foot beluga whale off the coast of San Diego. That’s thousands of miles away from where it’s supposed to be: in the Arctic circle.

Scientists were befuddled as to why such a whale would leave its really chilly waters for the kinda-chilly waters of Southern California.

A local whale watching group captured the event with a drone, according to Smithsonian Magazine.

How rare is this? Domenic Biagini, the group’s ship captain, told 10 News: “Imagine if you were going outside to take your dog for a walk and you saw a polar bear. It doesn’t make any sense at all. I saw it with my own eyes and I’m still not sure I believe it.”

The last time a beluga was seen on the western coast of America’s lower 48 was 1940, when one appeared in waters off Washington State, according to the article. But of course, they didn’t have drones back then (or did they?!).

The closest known population of belugas lives 2,500 miles north, off Cook Inlet, Alaska. They usually travel in pods, too, so it’s especially odd this beluga was spotted alone.

“As much as I love beluga whales,” Alissa Deming, director of clinical medicine at Pacific Marine Mammal Center in Laguna Beach. “I don’t want to see them off our coast because that means there’s something really wrong with their normal habitat up there in Alaska.”