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Kirk Effinger: The growth and water conundrum

Webster’s Dictionary defines a conundrum as “a confusing and difficult problem or question.” In this era of prolonged drought it is an apt word to describe our collective approach to water policy and, on a broader scale, growth.

We, or our ancestors, all came to this region in pursuit of a better life. Many may have come because of the better weather, but all stayed because of better opportunity.

In the case of water policy, I have long been a proponent of the notion that our water rates should reflect the importance of this life-giving commodity — to give it the respect it is due.

Nothing motivates like money, and nothing, in my view, will better ensure effective conservation efforts on the part of everyone than to financially incentivize consumers to consume less.

If you doubt the logic of this approach, look no further than toward the purchasing patterns of automobile consumers as gasoline prices continue to inch upward. Yes, government mandates may be forcing manufacturers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles, but people will only buy them if they see the benefits.

The conundrum enters into the equation when you factor the potential impacts of higher water rates, not to mention growth controls, into their effects on our region’s economic health.

If we make water unaffordable for industry, we put millions of jobs in jeopardy. At the same time, if we increase residential water rates disproportionate to the rates industry pays, we adversely impact everyone’s cost of living.

Currently, nearly every multi-unit residential development — apartments, attached townhomes and condominiums — use group metering to measure water consumption. A start to more enlightened water could be if every one of the dwelling units treated in this manner were fitted with accurate metering devices so the true cost of an individual resident’s water use could be recorded and charged accordingly, rather than buried in the costs that are passed on in rent or homeowner’s association fees.

There are those who argue water agencies already charge too much, that and charging higher rates at the same time less water use is being encouraged is just gouging the consumer.

For at least the last 125 years nearly all who have chosen to relocate to San Diego County have done so directly or indirectly as a result of the efforts of land speculators or developers. Those efforts include securing funding and building the vast water projects that bring this invaluable resource to our desert lands.

It’s the infrastructure of water delivery that we are truly paying for and, taking away cost of labor, that infrastructure remains an essentially fixed cost. It will take the same equipment, with essentially the same number of people operating it, to deliver our water, regardless of the amount delivered. Reduced usage results in reduced revenue, requiring an offset of higher rates to compensate.

I have often encouraged tax and ratepayers to pay more attention to the actions of their respective water boards. I can think of no better time to start than now.

Kirk W. Effinger was born in San Diego and raised in Southern California. He and his family have been residents of San Marcos for the past 30 years.  His opinion columns have appeared regularly in the North County Times and, later, the San Diego Union-Tribune since 1995. He can be reached at ki[email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @kirkeffinger