Santa Fe Irrigation District’s strategic plan centers on reliable water supply

Improvements are underway at the Santa Fe Irrigation District's R.E. Badger Filtration Plant.
(Karen Billing)

The Santa Fe Irrigation District board will consider the adoption of its new 10-year strategic plan on Aug. 19, laying the framework for the future and setting somewhat of a new intention for the water district that will turn 100 years old in 2023.

According to SFID Manager Al Lau, the plan for the future places a high level of focus on water resiliency, conservation and better engagement with its customers.

“Our mission is to meet the water supply needs of all customers— safely, sustainably, reliably and cost-effectively,” Lau said.

SFID Communications Manager Teresa Penunuri said the plan is a dynamic document that can be adjusted in response to the changing environment and customer needs. They are looking for community input as the plan moves forward and hope to increase their public outreach.

Lau has been with the district for three years and Penunuri joined the district last year, but they have known each other since 2003, when she was working for the San Diego County Water Authority and he for the Padre Dam Municipal Water District. Both are self-described “water nerds”.

Penunuri recalls a childhood growing up in a California drought with a dad who strictly enforced short showers, kept a bucket in said shower to water the plants and washed the car on the lawn. This upbringing led to her career focus, with a passion on water conservation.

“We really can’t live without water so we have to do what we can to protect it, take care of it and have resources available when we live in a place that gets less than 10 inches of rain a year,” she said.

“Water is life, it is the backbone of the community,” Lau said.

Penunuri said that now and in the coming years, water is a topic at that will be at the forefront of many people’s minds (not just the water nerds) as the region and state face long-term issues such as worsening drought conditions, declining water availability on the Colorado River, the rising cost of the water supply and increased regulations. Those increased regulations include the implementation of “Making Water Conservation a Way of Life” legislation, the state’s new water efficiency targets that must be in place by 2022.

In July, Governor Gavin Newsom asked all Californians to voluntarily cut their water use by 15%. Despite statewide drought conditions, the San Diego County Water Authority has asserted that the county still has adequate supply and that there are no shortages or regional water-use mandates as a result of strategic investments it has made over the years.

“Even though we’re in good shape, we need to do our part and do what we can to use water efficiently,” Lau said.

SFID serves two very distinct communities, Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe and a portion of Fairbanks Ranch, with two very different needs for water and even different microclimates. The district, unfortunately, holds the distinction of being one of the highest water users in the state per capita.

“We don’t want to be water cops,” Lau said, noting his goal is to provide resources to help customers meet water-use efficiency goals and take advantage of local rebates and incentive programs such as rain barrels, turf removal and weather-based irrigation controllers.

Per the strategic plan, the district aims to balance its long-range water supplies and water use to minimize the need for cutbacks during drought or regulatory changes.

This year SFID has taken several steps toward the strategic plan’s goals on reliable infrastructure and cost-effective operations.

The district is in the final stages of its automated water meter installations, is preparing for a new agricultural program to offer local growers and has made about $10 million worth of infrastructure improvements this summer at the R.E. Badger Filtration Plant.

Built in 1969, the plant out on Aliso Canyon Road is a “conventional” water treatment plant that utilizes flocculation/coagulation, sedimentation and filtration to take imported and local water sources and treat them for potable use.

“It’s an old method but a tried and true, bullet-proof method that doesn’t use a lot of energy,” said Tim Bailey, the water treatment plant manager. “Not a drop gets wasted.”

Jointly owned by the San Dieguito Water District, the plant treats raw water from Lake Hodges, the San Dieguito Reservoir and the San Diego County Water Authority. The plant has the capacity to treat up to 40 million gallons a day, and during a typical year, treats over 7 billion gallons of potable water.

Bailey said he and his “very skilled and reliable” operators take a lot of pride in the product. As just one example of SFID’s extra care, the plant has its own certification lab where they test the water every two hours while only required by state regulations to test every four hours.

Over the summer, construction began on a new solids tank and building, a roof replacement on the administration building and a sizable seismic retrofit on the plant’s 90-foot high backwash tank to ensure safety and reliability of the treatment process.

The ambitious feat of engineering involved building a temporary structure and moving the green 90 feet tall tank off its foundation. The size of the footing will be increased and the tank sandblasted on the inside and out before it will be placed back on its footings.

SFID customers received no water rate increases in 2021. In January 2020, the SFID board had approved 3% water rate increases for the next three years using a new five-tier residential rate. The board and staff were able to identify resources that could be utilized to maintain the current rate, bypassing an increase this year.

In June, SFID settled its water rate lawsuit with the Rancho Santa Fe Association. In the lawsuit, the Association alleged that SFID’s rate structure unfairly penalized Covenant members with higher water rates because their larger properties require more water for irrigation. Per the settlement, SFID has agreed to hire a rate consultant to prepare a new cost-of-service study to include, as part of the analysis, a budget-based tiered rate structure.

The district will be preparing the new study this fall and they expect to set new rates by the end of the year, with the goal of equitable rates across all customer classes.