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Mitigation Fee-Asco

Digger - 23 May 2012
Edited 05 November 2012

An article in the Borrego Sun ("Water District board will re-examine mitigation policy," 05/10/2012, p. 11) reported that the BWD board was undertaking a re-examination of Borrego Water District's Groundwater Mitigation Fee in response to an allegation that it was impeding development in the valley. The article goes on to suggest that, according to Director Lyle Brecht, the "original concept" behind the groundwater mitigation fee was to limit demand on Borrego's aquifer by driving-up development costs in the valley to make new development cost-prohibitive. That is a simplistic, distorted, and misleading representation of the facts, but mounted on this false premise the gallants on the BWD board went immediately galloping off in all directions to slay the mythical dragon of inhibited development.

The word "mitigation" does not appear anywhere in the Borrego Water District Groundwater Management Plan, September 25, 2002. In October 2003, however, a Save Our Aquifer Coalition (SOAC) white paper (page 3) called upon the BWD board to, among other things, impose a Groundwater Mitigation Fee on all new construction within the District and reserve all "funds obtained from such a fee... exclusively for groundwater management and conservation or matters demonstrably related directly and immediately thereto."

By early 2005, the BWD board finally produced a draft of a groundwater mitigation policy and, predictably, developers attacked it with the same unfounded arguments as are being advanced in favor of reducing or eliminating it today. Nonetheless, to their credit, the board passed the groundwater mitigation policy later in the year.

According to BWD General Manager Jerry Rolwing, quoted in the above referenced Borrego Sun article, "'the board isn't trying to regulate commerce. It's not the water district's job to set growth... We are here to maintain a water supply for the community.'" Close, but no cigar. The Borrego Water District is not an economic development agency. Its mission is just and only to ensure a sustainable potable water supply for the community. The intent of the BWD Groundwater Mitigation Policy is to facilitate exactly that. Despite Rolwing's disclaimer, however, the BWD board is clearly trying to "regulate commerce" and "set (increase) growth" by reducing the mitigation fee; never mind that, in so doing so, they are contravening their duty "to maintain a water supply for the community."

Unlike tiered water rates, which are intended to directly reduce water use and encourage conservation (the more you use the more you pay per unit of water), the groundwater mitigation fee was conceived and implemented as an impact fee to help defray the high cost of groundwater management that, before imposition of the fee, was borne entirely by existing BWD ratepayers. The mitigation fee was neither intended to make the cost of development in the valley unaffordable nor to compel "developers to pay the full cost of... mitigation" as BWD Director Lyle Brecht implies in comments quoted in the article.

According to Brecht "a number of the ratepayers and developers" have asked that the fees be "looked at." It is not surprising that developers or those with a material interest in development would seek reduction or elimination of mitigation fees. They have an obvious selfish motive for doing so. It would be surprising if ratepayers without such interests favored a fee reduction because they will, once again, bear whatever costs developers manage to avoid.

Despite more than a decade of false promises, uncounted committees, and expenditure of millions of ratepayer's dollars on "groundwater management," previous BWD regimes actually accomplished next to nothing. They produced a badly compromised and incomplete tiered-rate structure to encourage water conservation that applies to residential users only, imposed a modest groundwater mitigation requirement for new development, and purchased the well that serves the now closed Montesoro/Rams Hill (the name changes frequently to protect the guilty) golf course to give the District a modicum of control over that facility's extravagant water use.

The current BWD board is now considering undoing even these paltry accomplishments. In response to putative pressure from shadowy "ratepayers and developers," they are set to reduce or eliminate the Groundwater Mitigation Fee, ostensibly to facilitate growth and development in the valley. To "help clear the way to reopen the golf course" the board is negotiating to sell at least an interest in the Montesoro/Rams Hill well. Both of these will increase demand on the aquifer, decrease the District's ability to deal with the overdraft, and force additional costs back onto ratepayers.

Those who allege that the Groundwater Mitigation Fee significantly inhibits investment, growth, and development in the valley face a heavy burden of proof. To make their case they will have to prove that any fall-off in development activity is not simply a predictable effect of the unfavorable economic climate in California and the country aggravated by an even more depressed housing sector. Lacking such proof, the BWD board would be well advised to adopt a strategy of watchful waiting until the economy and housing market stabilize so that the extent of the Groundwater Mitigation Fee's influence on development can be fairly assessed - no mean feat even in a stable economic environment.

Lyle Brecht alleges that the board is merely "responding to the local situation" created by San Diego county's admittedly glacial response to a proposal from the District whereby BWD water creditswould satisfy the county's groundwater mitigation requirement as well as the local district's. But the county has not rejected the Borrego Water District's proposal and, in any case, the District has no warrant to make up for the many deficiencies of county government, especially when doing so will have a deleterious effect on BWD's ability to maintain a reliable water supply for the community at a reasonable cost to ratepayers. The board's precipitous action in this regard is little more than grandstanding.

The precarious groundwater situation in the Borrego Valley is a far greater threat to growth and development than the Groundwater Mitigation fee. As well, it threatens the very existence of the community. The present board has argued that what is driving steep rate increases is the very large cost overhang engendered by the need to solve the overdraft. The long-term interests of all concerned would, therefore, be far better served if the board spent time working on ways to hold agriculture in the valley financially accountable for its 70% share of responsibility for the overdraft instead of catering to special interests at the direct expense of already heavily encumbered ratepayers.
23 May 2012
Edited 05 November 2012

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