Hostage to Water

| September 12, 2014 | 0 Comments

When I was doing some work for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), I put together a private dinner at Rainwater’s (remember Rainwater’s? what a loss).

Among San Diego’s civic leaders invited that night was Malin Burnham, as great as any civic leader we have.

At the dinner Malin made a comment that has stayed with me. He said, “The only time I think about water is when I go to the faucet and turn it on.” He then said he otherwise never thinks about water; how it arrives from streams, rivers and lakes to homes and faucets.

If Malin Burnham isn’t thinking about water, what are the chances the rest of us are thinking about water?

Lately, of course, much has been said about water because California has serious water shortages. The seriousness of this issue is reported almost daily. But until it is up close and personal, it is someone else’s issue.

Well, it’s “up close and personal” for me because my water bill from the City of San Diego came the other day and the water department wants $401.57 to keep water coming to our faucets.

The last two-month bill I paid I paid was $305.55. In the past it seldom exceeded $200, but those days are gone.

In conversations with city water officials, it is clear water bills will continue to rise. Beginning next year some two month water bills may routinely exceed $400.

Recently, in Kensington, a gentleman, in a little white water department truck, was seen shutting off water to delinquent rate payers.

If water is being shut off in a neighborhood where median home prices are $733,800, how are other San Diego communities faring?

What we know from the city’s water department is 2,333 homes on average are shut off monthly from water. If three people per residence is the norm, then 7,000 San Diegans are going without water every month.

Have you tried getting through a day without water – water to drink, water for cooking, water for bathing, water for lawn and garden upkeep (assuming you still have a lawn).

Even the most rudimentary knowledge of our history, California and the West, teaches us water has always been in contention, always at issue; and sometimes, in the not too distant past, the cause of range wars and violence.

Drought cycles in California are just that, cycles, and we have gone through them in the past and survived, but when your population reaches 38 million people, the equation changes – and for us it has changed.

It’s surprising to discover that California, enlightened in many ways, has no state water plan. But why should that surprise us? There is no national water plan. Thanks to President Eisenhower we have a national highway plan, but no comparable water plan. Indeed, I cannot recall even a serious conversation about water at levels where it needs to be held about a “national plan.”

Thirty-five years ago I was working with a San Diego attorney to establish, as a Delaware corporation, The Great American Water Company. I reasoned that if we could move oil and gas from Texas to Maine, why couldn’t we move water from Minnesota, the Land of 10,000 Lakes, to Southern California?

It was a workable idea, but unless you have the means or financial backing, that’s all you have, an idea (I’ve had a few, same fate).

But consider this: if little ‘ol me thought a water plan for America was needed, how did others miss it, such as Federal, state, county, and municipal governments, but miss it they did – then and now.

The consequences of no national or state water plan has resulted in a proliferation of water agencies in every state and county – and San Diego County alone has 23 such agencies.

That is not a misprint – 23.

In a place where average rain fall is 10.34 inches, we have 23 water agencies – or 2.2 agencies for every inch of rain that falls. (In 2013 rain fall was only 6.55 inches, which meant we suddenly had 3.51 agencies for every inch.)

In a place notorious for its hatred of government, we have somehow allowed 23 water agencies to exist.

That means 23 different executive directors, 23 different boards of directors, 23 different agency employees, 23 different health insurance plans, 23 different retirement plans, etc.

The aggregate cost of all 23 agencies is infinitely more than if San Diego had one county wide water authority (actually we do, but its function is different than its “water authority” name might suggest).

I fully get the argument that people here love local control, but it comes at a cost.

I took a look at two of the 23 water districts, Carlsbad Municipal and Otay, but it was only that, a “look” not an in-depth study (that’s for people who actually get paid to do such studies; there’s a few).

I did so, not to criticize either Carlsbad or Otay but to make my point on proliferating agencies produce proliferating costs.

For Carlsbad their annual operating budget is $45,404,014. Their employee base is small, 38, and their general manager is paid $162,300.

Nothing unreasonable here, but, again, it must be weighed against the aggregate.

Otay’s Water District is much larger, as in 140 employees and an annual budget of more than $100 million (which includes capital improvements). Otay’s managing director is paid $215,000 (who, according to former California State Finance Director Steve Peace, is worth every penny of it).

Armando Buelna, who serves as communications officer for the district, explained that Otay’s rising cost of delivering water to its 123,000 customers is directly related to what Otay is charged by the San Diego County Water Authority.

Since 2006 Otay’s annual cost of an acre foot has gone from $640 to $1,452. The district projects its annual acre foot cost will rise to $1,505 in 2015 – an increase of nearly $900 in nine years. Buelna says Otay’s cost is nothing more than the pass though cost the district is charged by San Diego; and the cause and effect of that, San Diego’s water authority maintains, is what MWD charges its member agencies. (I am not getting into it here but conflict has long marked the relationship between MWD and our own water authority).

If El Niño returns and we experience again record rain fall in excess of 20 inches, as has happened three times in our history – 1885, 1940, and 2005 (in 1885 it actually reached 26 inches) – then concerns about water will evaporate. How do I know, because they always have.

But banking on El Niño is a fool’s bet. California and America need water plans – now. If our “leaders” won’t deal with it, then we as citizens must rise up and demand they pay attention and offer solutions.

But I feel silly even writing that, because way down deep I doubt that will happen, either by government or citizenry.

A statement based upon the fact we are now in a water crisis, but beyond hand wringing and complaints about ever rising water bills, he said, who is taking charge? Governor Brown? President Obama? True, Jerry Brown declared a “drought emergency,” but a declaration of an emergency and a water plan are not the same. Period. As for the president and leaders on Capitol Hill, mostly silence.

What will it take to galvanize people and leaders to act? Maybe it will happen the next time Malin Burnham goes to the faucet and turns it on – and nothing comes out.

(In writing this I was helped by Brent Eidson, who works for the city’s water department. But in the interest of full disclosure, we are friends and teammates on the Marston Mets. But the opinions expressed are wholly mine, not Brent’s, and any errors of fact, also, wholly mine.)

George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader. He may be reached at,

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