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S.D. County May Get Stiff New Water Fee

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The San Diego County Water Authority is considering charging developers a hookup fee of $600 to $800 for each new single-family home, as well as unspecified larger fees for builders of multifamily, commercial and industrial projects.

The new fee, which would be in addition to hookup fees charged by local water districts, are designed to make new water customers “pay for increased capacity demand that they put on the system,” said Shirley Jackson, assistant general manager of the County Water Authority.

While most water retailers, including the city of San Diego, have long charged one-time hookup fees, the new fee proposal represents “relatively new territory” for water wholesalers such as the County Water Authority, according to Lester Snow, the agency’s general manager.

The fee proposal, scheduled for discussion at an upcoming water authority board meeting, is designed to help pay for a $600-million capital improvement project that is in progress and will bolster the county’s water storage and distribution system, particularly in North County, where the brunt of San Diego County’s growth is occurring.

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The program, which includes massive new distribution pipes and additional North County-area reservoirs, is needed to expand an aging distribution and storage system that was built before the county’s population explosion, Snow said.

Reservoir capacity in North County must be improved because Lake Hodges, the county’s last new reservoir, completed in the 1950s, was not designed to meet the needs of the rapid growth now occurring North County, Snow said.

One consequence of the reservoir shortage is that North County residents could face severe restrictions on water consumption should an earthquake break off the county’s supply of water imported from the Colorado River, water authority officials said.

Depending on public and board reaction, the new hookup fees could be in place by the fall, Jackson said.

The water authority’s move to impose hookup fees is in line with a growing belief among government leaders that the county’s wave of new arrivals should help to defray the costs of building infrastructure needed to meet increased demand for services.

A San Diego City Council subcommittee recently recommended that hookup fees for water and sewer lines to new homes be increased by 123%. If that proposal is accepted, the city’s water hookup charges will jump to $4,252, and sewer connections will rise to $7,348 by July 1, 1995. Those increases would be in addition to 160% and 95% increases on those fees, respectively, following a council vote last year.

Building industry spokesmen said the water authority’s proposed hookup fee will further increase the cost of new housing in San Diego County. However, spokesmen for the Building Industry Assn. and the Construction Industry Federation said the higher hookup fees are, in general, needed.

“But you get to the point when you have to ask how much is too much,” said John Seymour, legislative analyst for the Construction Industry Federation.

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Water authority officials discussed the hookup fee during a wide-ranging update presented Thursday morning to municipalities and water agencies that buy water from the agency, which delivers more than 90% of the water used in San Diego County. All but a trickle of that water is imported from Northern California or the Colorado River.

“There’s nothing like declaring a drought to get people’s attention,” quipped Dale Mason, chairman of the water authority. Mason noted that San Diego often suffers from “pipeline paranoia” because the county is at the end of every pipeline and aqueduct used to import water into Southern California.

Thursday’s session was designed to alert municipal and water district officials to the water authority’s long-term activities, which are designed to keep water flowing to the county’s 2.5 million resident.

Although Mason acknowledged that Southern California has in general been moving backwards in its efforts to increase the region’s supply of potable water, he described the current drought as a temporary situation that, with proper planning and capital improvements, will be overcome.

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The authority’s underlying message on Thursday was that the current water crisis won’t be solved by massive new construction designed to bring more water into Southern California. “We’re in a new era of water planning where there are no big projects planned,” said Byron Buck, a water authority official who is developing a new resources plan for the authority.

The water agency instead intends to meet the growing demand for water through reclamation, conservation and the storage and distribution projects that will help the authority “increase water-use efficiency.”

The $600-million capital improvement plan, for example, will help improve the “reliability and flexibility” of the system used to move and store water in the county, an authority engineer said.

Reclamation, which now plays a small role in San Diego County, is expected to account for about 12%, or 100,000 acre-feet of the 800,000 acre-feet of water that will be consumed in 2010, according to Peter Maclaggan, who directs the authority’s reclamation program.

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Water authority officials expressed surprise at Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s call on Thursday for water rationing throughout Southern California. “No one expected that,” Snow said. “He surprised a lot of people.”

Mason and Snow maintained that rationing isn’t needed because San Diego County can reduce its water use 10% through a program of mandatory conservation that includes several common-sense approaches, including a prohibition on hosing down driveways and restrictions on when lawns can be watered.


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