San Diego farmers must pay water district thousands to change their service or lose it

Farmers in the highland valley between Ramona and Escondido are battling their water districts, with the scheme forcing them to pay thousands of dollars to change the type of water they use to irrigate their crops – otherwise there would be no water.

The program is now stuck in a nearly two-year delay as Ramona Municipal Water District Consider the risk of being sued and the impact on its hydrant system.

Russ Snow, who grows avocados on four acres in the Highland Valley, said switching costs could put him off farming altogether. He said he had “persisted” because of rising water prices and the effects of climate change, including wildfires, making farming more difficult.

“For me, it’s just the end of an era, and I’m as frustrated as a lot of farmers in this state because we’re kind of sidelined,” Snow said.

He has largely handed the future of his grove to the Ramona Municipal Water District, one of 17 San Diego-area agencies that specialize in delivering expensive plumbing, pumping systems to businesses and residents in most unincorporated areas Sale of imported water and storage tanks.

In highland valleys, it is no longer operationally or economically viable for farmers to provide untreated water to irrigate their crops, including avocados and grapes, according to a Learn Paid by Ramona Water Municipal District.


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Avocado farmer Russ Snow shows where the 2007 Witch Creek Fire destroyed his avocado grove between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022

The study determined that maintaining and repairing the untreated water system would cost about $42 million, about $42 million more than the amount the region plans to receive from current untreated water sales. Sales fell 91 percent from 2002 to 2019, partly because of the devastation caused by wildfires and partly because high water prices also hit other San Diegans.

The district’s board, locally elected, decided in July 2020 to decommission the entire untreated water system.In the letter, the district Tell About 140 meter users said their untreated water would be shut off and they needed to decide whether to convert to a treated water system to continue receiving water.

Switch to Treated Water cost According to the conversion table, customers are between $3,162 and $7,500 or more depending on the size of the existing meter. The money will cover the cost of a new treated water meter and installation of new plumbing to connect to the system.

So far, 75 customers have opted to convert to a treated water system or disconnect their meters from an untreated water system, according to a district spokesperson.

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But some farmers refused to pay, saying they had already paid for their water infrastructure through a tax. Assessment area 1979. They’re asking if it’s legal to force them to pay for the switch and calling on the district to reconnect free water after they shut down untreated water service.

Citing ongoing discussions and developments, the board has twice pushed back the deadline for customers to make their choices from July 2021 to March 2023.

Debate over who will benefit

Ramona Municipal Water District interim general manager Craig Schmollinger told Xinyuan Changes to water service will avoid passing millions of dollars in costs to customers, including farmers.

“It’s not tenable for them, especially when there is a slight increase in the cost of buying treated water compared to untreated water,” Schmolinger said of farmers using untreated water. water system. “It’s an overall saving, and the board recognizes that dual systems don’t seem to make much sense, so that’s why.”

Untreated water systems serve about 1 percent of the region’s 9,800-meter connections, but the cost of maintaining and repairing the system is higher than the cost of repairing and maintaining treated water systems, he said.

at the same time, speed The ratio of treated water is only slightly higher than that of untreated water.


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Avocados are photographed on a farm in the Highlands Valley between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022

Farmers aren’t losing one service — they’re getting a different type of service, Schmollinger said.

As for the cost of reconnecting the treated water, the district called it a “limited cost” in a letter to customers.

Schmolinger said the water district’s board considered who should pay the conversion costs and decided the client should do so because it was a private interest in private property.

But some farmers disagree. Snow and three other farmers in the area sent a four-page letter to their neighbors outlining their concerns. The switch, they argue, is a general benefit across the region, as it may result in overall savings for all customers.

They also point to the region’s own codewhich states that “if any water main is replaced, relocated or expanded, any metered connection to that water main existing at the time of the replacement, removal or expansion shall be exempt from any connection charges if replaced in kind.”

Schmollinger said in an email Xinyuan The rules cited by farmers do not apply to areas affected by remodeling.

Snow and other farmers are urging neighbors who have already paid to demand refunds.

The last of many generations in the High Valley

Snow cited the fight over who should pay for the retrofit as an example of how the country and the region are not doing enough to help small farmers like him survive or acknowledge the contributions farmers have made in building water infrastructure.

His family was closely connected to the Highland Valley, and the rolling hills between Poway, Ramona and Escondido are now dotted with avocado groves, wineries, farms and homes.

Snow’s grandfather purchased a 360-acre ranch in the Highland Valley in the 1950s, and was one of a group of people who petitioned the Ramona Municipal Water District to first expand water service to the area for more water, including avocados. More thirsty crops paved the way.


Sandy Huffak/inewsource

Avocado farmer Russ Snow shows where the 2007 Witch Creek Fire destroyed his avocado grove between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022.

With the development of agriculture in the valley, water services are no longer sufficient. In 1979, the Ramona City Water District decided to build an untreated water system to reduce the pressure on the treated water system.

October 2007, wildfire Ripped through the area, killing two people and burning more than 1,000 homes. They also damaged 2,700 acres of farms, including nurseries and orchards, causing $24 million in damage to avocados alone.

Snow bought property near his father’s ranch and had to give up 10 of his 14 acres of avocado trees. The stump was already burning underground, he recalled.

San Diego growers are also battling rising water prices, which have led some to change their crops. According to the California Avocado Commission, the county’s avocado acreage fell 28 percent between 2011 and 2021, ceding its position as the state’s largest avocado producer to Ventura, where water is cheaper. County. Boutique wineries that rely on this less thirsty grape are increasingly popping up in the Highland Valley.

However, the agricultural industry in San Diego County remains a strong economic force, bringing $1.8 billion In 2020, mainly from nurseries and cut flowers, but also from avocados, vegetables and citrus.

Snow tended his remaining four acres of avocado trees by himself, picking the fruit and selling it to a packing house in the valley.

“My family has been farming in this state since the gold rush, and I’ll be the last,” Snow said. “It’s hard.”

He’s considering replanting some of the avocado trees that were burned in the wildfires, but he’s worried he’ll have to pay extra connection fees without previously applying to use the extra water. According to one calculation, he estimated he would have to pay around $42,000 to extract the amount of water needed to extract an acre of avocados.

Snow said he expects the Ramona Municipal Water District to cover the cost of the retrofit and that agricultural users will increase water usage.

little oversight of the waters

Water District’s clients have little to no means to remedy what they perceive to be unfair treatment.

Snow said his options were to vote for new board members or to sue the board, which he said operates without any real oversight.


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Photo of a water backflow near the property of avocado farmer Russ Snow in the Highland Valley between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022

Executive Director Edward Lopez Utilities Consumer Advocacy Networknoted that as independent local governing bodies, municipal water districts are not regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission and can determine costs and services for themselves.

Lopez said water districts governed by elected boards must provide publicity for decision-making and provide opportunities for customers to participate.The Ramona Municipal Water District held an information workshop last May, in addition to sending letters and posting information on it at several board meetings website.

Water districts are also subject to their own rules, and Lopez noted that farmers and water districts seem to have different interpretations. But he was unable to comment on the disagreement in detail because he was not directly familiar with the issue.

“I certainly sympathize with any customer facing rate shocks or fees they didn’t have to pay before,” Lopez said.

There is a local government supervisory body that has certain supervisory powers over the waters.

The agency is called the San Diego County Local Agency Formation Committee, or Lafkoreviewed the Ramona City Water District last year as part of a standard multi-year process, but Report No mention was made of the water problems faced by farmers, some of whom were frustrated.

Executive Director Gene Symonds told Xinyuan The omission in the municipal review may have been a mistake. He said he could do more research and prepare an addendum if formally requested by taxpayers or the school district.

The supervisory role of LAFCO is limited. The agency is primarily responsible for adjusting jurisdiction and managing growth, and has the power to merge or dissolve special areas such as water districts if they “get lost.”

Symonds added that adapting and supporting agriculture is a increasingly targeted The organization believes in maintaining economic dynamism.

“This is an important topic with many layers,” Symonds wrote in an email.

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