An Open Letter to San Juan residents about Water

By Roy L. Byrnes, M.D, former Mayor, San Juan Capistrano 

I’m plenty mad and you should be also. You and I have been betrayed; entrapped in a water scam. We’ve been deceived into paying extra, unwarranted charges for our water. I’m referring to the excessive costs of making our own water from the Ground Water Recovery Plant (GWRP). This is an ill-conceived political boondoggle which costs us about $1,600 to produce one acre foot of water when that same acre foot of water can be bought from the Metropolitan Water District for $861 -- . $700 per acre foot being thrown away! Multiply $700 by 4,800 acre feet annually and you’ll see that we’re throwing overboard about $3.4 million due to incompetent City Hall leadership and political shenanigans. Have you looked at your water bills recently? If you think it’s bad now, just wait; it’s bound to get worse.

How did this happen?

Our leaders were told (and foolishly believed) that our city should have its own “private” source of water from its own private ground water recycling plant in the event that some event (political? sociological? or drought?) should cause the Metropolitan Water District (“MWD”) (which is the source for 90% of Southern California water), to sharply curtail our allotment.

I believe the truth is different. If the MWD is forced to drastically reduce its water allocation, our allotment would be reduced by the same amount of water we’re currently producing with our water plant. So, in the event of severe water restrictions, San Juan Capistrano will be just as “dry” as neighboring cities –with or without our water recycling plant.

According to reliable sources, the Rancho Mission Viejo Company (”RMV Company”) had a personal motive to entrap the City into this dead-end venture. In 2002 the RMV Company was seeking permission of the Orange County Board of Supervisors to build 14,000 homes with 5 million square feet of commercial/retail space. Water availability was a key part of their application. The creation of a water plant added significantly to the total amount of water potentially available in the area. It didn’t matter to the RMV Company whether the plant functioned to specifications or not; as long as the project looked good “on paper”. The Ranch’s application was eventually approved by the County. Thus, indirectly the RMV Company had a strong, private interest in fomenting the creation of this Ground Water Recovery Plant (GWRP) by our city. As always with the RMV Company; we pay; they benefit.

Someone told me: “This recycling plant is a form of ‘insurance’”. Utter hogwash! If some future environmental calamity should cause water to dry up in Southern California, our ground water table would be the first to go – hence, the output of our expensive plant would quickly drop to zero! Right now we are paying about double for “our own” water – that’s too high for any “insurance” justification.

This Ground Water Recovery Plant is inappropriate for a City the size of San Juan. It’s now clear that this City, a small bedroom community of 11,000 meters, should never have embarked on such a project.

The GWRP has not functioned as originally promised. I believe the City has been deceived; it was sold a “white elephant”. The recent independent audit by Ralph Anderson & Co. is replete with “red flags” of warnings and indicates an appalling deficit of $ 8 million, with on-going major losses which threaten the financial integrity of the City. Staff reports are more optimistic but bear in mind that without the water plant, some staff members would be out of a job.

Even with promised “increased efficiency”, the plant still costs far more than if we purchased the water elsewhere. As a result, the water plant will never become profitable in spite of the “optimism” of staff and some Council “leaders”.

City Council faces a tortuous path with difficult decisions. I doubt that Council and staff are able to tame a monster of this enormity or they would have already done so. Therefore, I suggest we return to basics; confer with our sister agencies and re-negotiate the entire plant contract on a regional basis. There is no reason why the citizens of San Juan should be forced to bear the entire burden of this “white elephant”. I repeat: Study your water bills. This ill-conceived water plant will make them rise significantly.

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