Santa Fe Irrigation board approves water rate increases

The Santa Fe Irrigation District,
(Karen Billing)

Santa Fe Irrigation District customers will see an increase in water rates this spring as the board voted on March 28 to approve the new rate hike. In the 4-1 vote, Director Sandy Johnson representing Rancho Santa Fe was opposed. The new rates went into effect on April 1 and customers will see the impacts on bi-monthly bills in June.

The district’s rate-setting process began over a year ago, taking a hard turn in the fall due to the “unprecedented” ramifications of the damages to Lake Hodges Dam and the emergency repairs. Losing the ability to yield local water will have an huge impact on all SFID customers, requiring the district to purchase more expensive imported water from the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA). To provide some relief for the rate increases, the SFID board has approved utilizing $2.5 million in rate stabilization reserves, reducing capital spending and the redistribution of property tax revenues.

The district’s new rate structure is tiered rates with a meter overlay, which allocates greater amounts of water in each tier to properties served by larger meters. Higher rates are imposed per unit of water in each incremental tier as the level of consumption increases.

In supporting the water rates, Director Dana Friehauf said they meet the district’s main objectives of defensibility and equity among the diversity of customers.

“Having tiered water rates provides equity in our structure. It’s to ensure that customers peaking on the system and using more water pay the costs associated with providing that service,” Friehauf said. “The tiered water rates also add the extra benefit of encouraging conservation.”

Director Johnson was the sole vote against the new rates. Last fall she also voted against the tiered rate structure, preferring instead a uniform rate for all customers.

“I was hoping we would find some compromise in the cost of service study and there were no compromises for what the voices in Rancho Santa Fe and Fairbanks wanted,” Johnson said.

Johnson said she was concerned with the use of capital improvement funds: “We can’t sustain the budget that we have….We all have to pay for imparted water and that needs to be done in a more fair and equitable manner.”

In accordance with Prop 218, notices about the proposed rate structures and increases were sent out in February, giving customers an opportunity to protest. Of the district’s 6,500 metered parcels, SFID received 521 written protests, not meeting the majority.

At the meeting, a few Rancho Santa Fe residents offered comments in opposition to the increases.

In written public comment read into the record, former SFID board member and Fairbanks Ranch resident Marlene King said the rate situation is a “hot mess” and is potentially a “bait and switch” given that the SDWCA has preliminary indicated a January 2024 rate increase of 14%. The maximum pass-through cost Santa Fe Irrigation has noticed is for a 10% increase for fixed and variable charges. King said not many customers know the actual percentage of the rate increases they will see on their bills because SFID has not told them.

“While SFID strives for transparency they need to strive considerably harder to present a Prop 218 notice clearly communicating to the customers how high their rates might be,” wrote King.

SFID has said they will be reviewing fiscal conditions in the fall to get a better handle on the SDCWA rates and how much the January 2024 rate increase will be.

In his comments, Director Andrew Menshek had strong words for the city of San Diego and the “curveball” it threw the district with the emergency repairs needed on the 105-year old Lake Hodges Dam.

“This rate increase is squarely the fault of the city of San Diego, their lack of maintenance, their lack of operational quality on Lake Hodges Dam,” Menshek said.

A public safety officer for over 33 years, Menshek said when he took a tour of the dam last year he saw what be believed to be decades of failure to maintain that structure—he could look through the dam and see the other side of the mountain. In February, the Division of Dam Safety lowered its rating on the dam from 2019’s “Poor Condition” to the new “Unsatisfactory Condition” due to seismic reasons. Menshek said the dam’s conditions are dangerous and dam spillway or failure could impact homes, businesses, schools, roads and highways: “I just cannot believe the lack of foresight and protection, that the city would spend money elsewhere other than public safety.”

He said it’s unfortunate that the loss of local water is now a burden that SFID and its ratepayers have to shoulder.

“I agree with the speakers, we don’t want to stop doing capital improvements,” Menshek said. “We are going to mount a strong and forward-leaning (fight) and we’re not going to waffle on this…we’re going to fight to get our water back.”