San Diego increases sewer rates 31 percent over four years for single-family customers
City says rate spike needed to upgrade aging pipes, complete Pure Water; rates go down for businesses, apartments
The San Diego City Council unanimously approved Tuesday a 17 percent sewer rate increase for single-family homes next year and a 31 percent increase for those customers over the next four years.
The new rate structure, which takes effect Jan. 1, reduces sewer rates for most businesses, condos and apartments based on two comprehensive studies showing those customers have been paying more than their fair share.
However, those studies also show that customers in single-family homes, who make up about 80 percent of the city’s 2.2 million sewer customers, haven’t been paying enough since the last time sewer rates were analyzed in 2007.
Council members said it’s tough to raise rates when many residents are still struggling with the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. But they said the city’s aging sewer infrastructure could collapse without money for upgrades.
“We are trying to run a city in the year 2021 based on technology and materials that frankly come from 1961 in a lot of cases, and this is really not acceptable,” said Councilmember Raul Campillo. “Asking ratepayers to contribute another penny is never ideal because we live in one of the least affordable regions in the United States, but we have a duty as elected officials to make those hard decisions.”
Councilmembers Joe LaCava and Chris Cate also stressed that money from the higher rates will help fund the city’s roughly $5 billion Pure Water sewage recycling system, which they called crucial to San Diego’s water independence.
Without Pure Water to recycle treated sewage, San Diego would have had to spend an estimated $3 billion upgrading the city’s main sewer treatment plant in Point Loma to meet federal standards.
When the sewer rate changes for all customers are combined, the increase is projected to increase sewer system revenues by about 5 percent in 2022, 4 percent each in 2023 and 2024, and 3 percent in 2025.
A typical owner of a single-family home would see their monthly bill increase from $40.52 to $47.64 next year. Their bill would then climb to $49.58 in January 2023, $51.53 in January 2024 and $53.07 in January 2025.
The increase to $47.64 would move San Diego up from third lowest among sewer agencies in the county to the middle of the pack.
For businesses, rates would go down 5 percent in 2022. Condos and apartments would see a 12.1 percent decrease next year.
The council’s approval also included a roughly 20 percent increase in the fee new sewer customers pay when they hook up to the system.
The Building Industry Association lobbied unsuccessfully to have that increase phased in over two years.
Councilmembers Chris Cate and Vivian Moreno said staggering the increase would make sense, noting that many large housing projects under construction haven’t yet paid the fee and may experience sticker shock when they do.
City officials said the increased money from a higher hook-up charge is built into their revenue model, so staggering it would likely require higher rate increases for other customers. The fee hasn’t increased since 2007.
The approval also included the first update since the 1980s to the city’s industrial wastewater control program, which requires businesses to pay their fair share for anti-pollution efforts. Those fee increases will be phased in.
The final element of Tuesday’s approval was a 3 percent water rate increase that city officials described as a “pass-through” increase.
The County Water Authority raised rates for imported water 5.6 percent recently, and city officials said they are only passing 3 percent on to local customers.
Cate voted against the water rate increase but approved the other items.
Some residents complained that sewer rates for some apartment and condo complexes don’t give residents credit for using water to cultivate gardens. City officials said that might be true, but that they must treat all apartments and condos as part of one customer class with the same fee structure.
Campillo said ratepayers and residents should be pleased that the council is making tough choices and being transparent about the challenges San Diego faces.
“This council is doing what past councils haven’t — it’s leveling with you,” he said.
Council members stressed that the sewer rate increases are phased in to soften the impact. They also noted that the increases are smaller than initially proposed because city officials got a second opinion from an outside consultant last spring.
Residents facing financial hardship because of the pandemic may qualify for funding to help cover rent, utilities and internet service. To apply, visit covidassistance.sdhc.org.
The city also has the “help to others” program, which is a bill payment assistance option for qualified customers at sandiego.gov/h2o.
Additional information about rate increases, including a customer bill calculator, is at sandiego.gov/rate-increases.