"Regionalizing" the Ground Water
a Solution to an Expensive Problem
By Roy L. Byrnes, MD, San Juan Capistrano City Councilmember
Our “water troubles” began about ten years ago when the City made the fateful choice to move away from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD), which had been our traditional supplier of water for nearly 100 years. Unfortunately, the City decided that we should obtain about 75% of our water by pumping the subterranean aquifer from the San Juan basin using the local Ground Water Recovery Plant (GWRP).
That was a bad decision and we've been paying a very high price for it ever since. Indeed, over the past 10 years, we've learned that the GWRP is more expensive and less reliable than MWD water. Looking to the future, the rising cost of electricity, plus the cost of 21 employees to run it, plus the maintenance and repairs, plus the expenses of installing recharge facilities, plus the construction of barriers to protect from ocean water intrusion - all these factors mean that the future operational costs of the GWRP will continue to outpace even the expected increase in MWD water costs.
What to do? Last month Councilman Sam Allevato suggested that the City should determine the costs and consequences of shuttering the “water factory” and stopping (defaulting on) the bond payments. Upon suggestion of the City Attorney, he withdrew his suggestion.
Today I offer a better solution. This is a return to the original concept when the San Juan Basin Authority was formed decades ago. This approach involves reducing operational expenses by spreading costs of operation over a larger number of customers; a program of “regionalization” which gets the City of San Juan Capistrano out of the water business without financial injury.
At the present time the City has a goal of producing about 75% of its water from the GWRP and 24% from the less expensive MWD source. This places a heavy financial burden on the 11,000 San Juan customers. In time this will become unbearable as the increased costs of electricity, staff and measures to protect against ocean water intrusion are added on.
I suggest we start by removing the operation of the GWRP (water plant) from the City of San Juan and transferring it to the San Juan Basin Authority (the actual owners of the facility) so that the GWRP can supply water to all four of the Basin Authority participants, not just San Juan. That means that the financial burden of the GWRP would be supported by a vastly increased number of customers – an estimated 75,000. Thus each customer will pay far less to support the operation of the plant. San Juan would reverse its pattern and acquire about 85-90% of its water from the less expensive MWD source and only a small 5 -10% from the GWRP. San Juan's water costs drop!
There could be three net results of this change:
1. The role of the GWRP is switched – no longer is it the primary water source for the
City of San Juan. Instead, the GWRP becomes an auxiliary-backup-emergency water source for a much larger group of customers from all of the San Juan Basin participants – as originally intended.
2. Since the GWRP is no longer their direct responsibility, the San Juan ratepayers are
relieved of an insufferable financial burden. The City is “out of the water business” as
the San Juan Basin Authority takes over. San Juan finances improve hugely!
3. The costs of leasing the GWRP would be assumed by all the San Juan Basin Authority members. This would supply the money to meet bond payments. There is no interruption in the payment of money to bondholders and no bankruptcy.
This illustration is offered to show that reasonable alternatives do exist.
Editor’s note: Councilman Byrnes’ suggestion echoes that of Capistrano Taxpayers Association Board member John Perry, who proposed a similar “regional” approach in an article in the April issue of the CCS entitled, “New Water Strategy Needed,” which can be accessed in the “Archives” on our website at: www.ccsense.com. Perry re-iterated his recommendation to “regionalize” the Ground Water Recovery Plant to the Board members of the San Juan Basin Authority at their November 12, 2013 meeting. Unfortunately, to date the San Juan Capistrano City Council majority has failed to consider this or any other plan to solve the problem.