Rancho Santa Fe water board approves rate increases for 2013

By Joe Tash

For the sixth year in a row, customers of the Santa Fe Irrigation District will receive an increase in their water bill come Jan. 1, 2013.

Irrigation district directors approved a 6 percent rate increase for 2013 at their meeting on Thursday, Nov. 15.  The board approved the rate increase on a 4-1 vote, with director John Ingalls voting “no.”

With the latest rate increase, customers’ water bills have risen 74 percent over a six-year period.

The largest factor in the series of rate hikes has been a corresponding increase in the cost of imported water, which the Santa Fe Irrigation District buys from outside agencies to supply its customers, said irrigation district general manager Michael Bardin.

This year, 3 percent of the increase will cover an anticipated rise in water costs to be charged by the San Diego County Water Authority, while the other 3 percent will help pay for capital improvement projects in coming years, Bardin said.

“From our perspective, it’s a needed rate increase to cover the cost of water going up and fund our infrastructure improvement program.  But we really are striving to keep rates as low as possible,” Bardin said.

This year, the district’s $20 million operating budget is essentially flat from the previous year, and the agency has trimmed a number of staff positions in recent years to cut costs, Bardin said.

At their meeting Thursday, directors declined a request by newly elected director Greg Gruzdowich to hold off on considering the rate increase until new board members are seated in December.

In the Nov. 6 election, Gruzdowich beat incumbent director Ken Dunford, while Alan Smerican won the seat being vacated by retiring director Robert “Bud” Irvin.

Each 1 percent rate increase generates about $200,000 per year in revenue for the district, according to a staff report.

The district’s water rates are still in the bottom one-third of water agencies in San Diego County, said Bardin.

Money from the rate increase will be used to fund the district’s 10-year, $60 million capital improvement plan, which includes replacement of aging valves and pipelines, and improvements to the district’s water filtration plant.

Even with the rate increase, Bardin said, the district will have a funding gap for its capital improvement budget, which will have to be revisited in future years.

Another way the district is trying to save money is by using as much water as possible from local sources, such as Lake Hodges.  Currently, the district imports about half its water, and uses local water for the rest of its needs, Bardin said.

“We’re hoping for a wet winter to get some water in Lake Hodges again,” Bardin said.  “If Mother Nature provides it, we’ve put ourselves in a position to sustain those levels (of local water use).”

The district provides water for about 22,500 people in Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch.

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