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Bill Michalsky

When in Drought…

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Water 101

Ken Olson

Water 101
Ken Olson | City of Del Mar’s representative to the San Diego County Water Authority

It’s pretty astounding that water, delivered right to our homes, costs such a pittance. Imagine 748 gallons (100 cubic feet) for $3.40 – that’s all we pay in the city of Del Mar. Here we are in the far lower left corner of the country, living in a desert, and we can twist a faucet and get two gallons of clean water for less than a penny. Wow!

As consumers, we’re happy to spend money proportional to value received for anything we buy, including water. For water that value is huge and the cost is small; under California law the operating principle of water agencies is that they are required to charge no more than their cost of service, so residential customers repay only those costs. Your water bill approximates your share of those costs, not a bit more.

There are about a dozen easily identified components of the cost of our residential water. (I hope you’ll forgive some oversimplification; water is a complex business).

1. The water is free. Water at its source is typically free, thanks very much. The snowmelt, rainfall, rivers, lakes, and lagoons all provide water free of charge to those who have the legal rights to take it. The earliest laws in our region applied to the Spanish land grants; those laws intentionally did not provide for water ownership. Water was free like air -- take what you need. When this area became part of the U.S. it fell under a legal system that encourages various regulated entities to own the rights to take certain water. Now as residents/ratepayers we pay only for delivery and related costs – we are actually buying purification and delivery services, not water.

2. Systems for conveyance: Delivering water requires interconnected pipes, pumps, dams, canals, treatment plants, and other components --an amazingly complex set of systems and controls with a total cost of billions of dollars. All of this requires frequent expansion and constant maintenance. There’s always something new to worry about – right now invasive Quagga mussels are a huge problem in the Colorado River Aqueduct.

3. Distribution and maintenance costs: We pay for storing and moving large amounts of untreated water from the State Water Project and from the Colorado River to our county. This conveyance is where the big bucks are spent --the biggest cost is for electricity to drive the pumps that lift millions of acre-feet of water again and again as it moves through the mountains and valleys.

4. Treatment of the water: All of the required water treatment plants are run by professionals who constantly control water quality to ensure that the end product meets all state and federal standards. These treatment processes consume huge amounts of electricity.

5. Security costs: To protect the water we employ fencing, trained guards and other security personnel with vehicles and equipment, video surveillance camera systems and sensors with remote monitors, and personnel to watch over them.

6. The 100-year view: Thanks to the last few generations of Californians, all of today’s necessary infrastructure is in place. Continuous improvement to infrastructure will always be with us -- the County Water Authority is now planning and building for the next century.

7. Regulatory expenses: Water needs permits and/or consultants for almost everything: environmental studies, mitigation projects, federal regulations, state regulations, county regulations, dealing with many other entities from the Audubon Society to the Zero Emissions Club. Coastal Commission. Dept. of Fish and Wildlife. Army Corps of Engineers. Bureau of Reclamation. Colorado River Authority. A quick count gets me up to 27 of them; I’m sure there are others.

8. Legal and compliance costs: U.S. water law is not yet totally settled. Water rights exist under all kinds of ill-defined and often overlapping agreements, so the courts are often asked to determine what’s right. Acquiring and maintaining rights-of-way for aqueducts, pipelines, and power lines involving a lot of regulatory bodies and property owners is a legal quagmire. Water litigation is expensive, but the courts eventually make pretty good rules. Everything that water suppliers do is monitored by expert regulators and lawyers who spend their whole careers in the water business.

9. Reserves: Local storage is our best protection against possibilities like that big earthquake we keep hearing about. The County Water Authority is now investing in accumulating large amounts of stored water to get us by for at least six months without any imports. Just like our fire insurance, we hope we won’t ever need these reserves, but the local storage is comforting and valuable to each of us. The alternative is frightening.

10. Conservation: We are all environmentalists now, so we all share in the costs of public education and incentives to ratepayers to encourage them to conserve even more.

11. Financing costs: Big infrastructure projects cost big money so, like in any other business, long term money is borrowed at current interest rates and each project is paid off over many years by its true beneficiaries, the end users of the water.

12. Profits: Who’s making money on this? Nobody. The agencies that handle and purify the water from the source to our faucets are public entities and are not allowed to make any money – we get their efficient services at their highly visible and skillfully minimized costs. Their operating records are wide open and shared with the public.

This is a lot of oversimplification, but my hope is that it will promote appreciation for the water service that we sometimes take for granted. It’s truly amazing that clean and dependable water for our homes costs so little.


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