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Opinion: Criminalize Water Use, or Just Buy Imported Water?

Published on Monday, June 22, 2009 | 7:49 am

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A recent purchase of imported water by San Diego from Placer County raises the question whether it would be better for Pasadena to just buy imported water in lieu of enacting a tough water enforcement ordinance and unpopular water rate hike.

The San Diego County Water Authority is about to purchase enough water for 40,000 households for one year from Folsom Dam in Placer County, operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation at a price of $5.5 million, or $275 per acre foot (or $137.50 per household per year). The water will be shipped from Folsom Dam through the Sacramento Delta and the California Aqueduct to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California which will, in turn, deliver an equal amount of water to San Diego.  The water will be shipped during summer months from from July to September.

The City of Pasadena is about to mandate a 10% cutback in water usage and hike base water rates as much as 100% in response to a revenue shortfall in its Water Fund due fewer water purchases as a result of water conservation and lack of water sales from unoccupied new downtown housing. A water rate hike appears unavoidable given the shortfall in revenues to the City Water Fund due to conservation.

Accompanying the increase in water rates will be a new water enforcement ordinance which criminalizes water wasting. The new ordinance will enforce fines on those watering at unauthorized hours, days, or allowing water from lawn sprinklers to run onto the sidewalk or drain into the street.

Pasadena annually uses about 35,000 to 37,000 acre feet of water according to its 2005 Urban Water Management Plan.  A 10% cutback in water use would be about 3,500 to 3,750 acre feet of water. Pasadena relies on groundwater from the Raymond Basin for 30% to 40% of its water at a cost of about $125 per acre foot.  The new Tier 4 and 5 drought water rates for imported water from the Metropolitan Water District are about $800 to $1,000 per acre foot (or $400 to $500 per household per year).

To comply with water conservation mandates Pasadena plans to hire six new water enforcement personnel and set up a water court for water wasters to appeal fines at an administrative cost of about $1,000,000. Buying 3,750 acre feet of raw water from Folsom Dam in lieu of a 10% water cutback would only cost about $1 million plus, say, about $375,000 in treatment costs for a total of about $1,375,000, or about $183 per household per year. (Note: This may not include conveyance costs called “wheeling fees”). For about the same cost as water enforcement, Pasadena could possibly just buy imported water to replenish the Raymond Basin and prevent the potential overdraft of the basin beyond what is called its “safe yield” level.

So apparently San Diego has beat Pasadena to a source of drought water for the summer of 2009. Should Pasadena exceed 90% of its imported water needs it would possibly be subject to MWD’s penalty water rates of about $400 to $500 per household per year (which would equate to about two to three times the unit price of raw water purchased by San Diego plus treatment costs).

David Powell, a Cal-Tech educated and retired water resources engineer and former State Department of Water Resources official living in Pasadena has recently posed the question whether Pasadena should just buy water to replace any overdraft of the Raymond Basin caused by water conservation.  Buying water from Folsom Dam at roughly the same price as it costs Pasadena to produce drinking water from the Raymond Basin plus water treatment costs seems like a “no brainer.”  But while local PWP water managers are diligently trying to find alternate sources of water to mitigate overdrafting the Raymond Basin, both local and state politicians seem asleep at the pumphouse switch.

Neither the San Diego County Water Authority or the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation have indicated how they would transfer the purchased water through the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant in the Sacramento Delta given that a judge has curtailed water shipments to Southern California purportedly to protect a tiny fish from the pumps.  A proposal to create a hatchery for the purportedly endangered fish to allow pumping of water through the Harvey O. Banks Pumping Plant was rejected by the U.S. Congress (Schiff, Pelosi, Boxer, Feinstein).

Read more about the San Diego water purchase at the following links:

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