SAN DIEGO — A local governing board voted to approve the separation of two North County water districts from the San Diego County Water Authority, moving forward their efforts to cut ties with the supplier in pursuit of cheaper water rates.
The county’s Local Agency Formation Commission voted 5-3 in favor of allowing the Fallbrook Public Utility District and the Rainbow Municipal Water District to leave the central water agency and switch to Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County.
The two largely agricultural water districts argue that this move would help save their customers about $7.6 million per year. With the Water Authority, the districts say they’re paying for infrastructure and projects they do not benefit from.
Farmers and growers in the districts argue that they’re struggling to pay their bills amid rising rates county wide, while also losing crops.
During public comment at Monday’s LAFC meeting, most speakers were North County residents who supported the split from the water authority.
“We did not want to leave the Water Authority. All San Diegans value agriculture, all San Diegans want affordable water and affordable water needs to happen now,” a Fallbrook farmer said on Monday. “The Water Authority needs to be fixed, but in the meantime we need to survive.”
The Water Authority, along with many county leaders, strongly opposed the detachment, claiming that it could increase how much other county residents in the remaining 22 member districts pay for their water by nearly $200 million over the next decade.
The districts, however, argued that estimate is exaggerated and misleading. The detachers say that the $24 million exit fee the districts should help offset any additional costs. The fee, which will be paid over five years, was approved with the commission’s vote on Monday.
“We would prefer no fee, obviously, but compared to taking the back-breaking rate increases the Water Authority keeps pushing through, this will be a better result for our farmers,” said Tom Kennedy, general manager of the Rainbow Municipal Water District.
Meanwhile, the Water Authority officials say they still want to work out a deal with Fallbrook and Rainbow.
“We’re disappointed … we feel that the vote taken today is really a disservice to all of the different ratepayers in San Diego County and also to agriculture in San Diego County that’s not in Fallbrook and Rainbow,” said Water Authority Board Chair Mel Katz.
The North County districts will now put the move to a vote among its customers, which could happen later this year.