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This story was published by inewsource, a nonprofit investigative newsroom based in San Diego.

Farmers in the Highland Valley between Ramona and Escondido are fighting their water district over a plan to force them to pay thousands of dollars to switch the type of water they use to irrigate their crops — or else go without the water.

The plan is now mired in a delay of almost two years as the Ramona Municipal Water District considers the risk it will get sued and the impacts on its fire hydrant system.

Russ Snow, who grows avocados on four acres in the Highland Valley, said the cost of the switch might make him stop farming altogether. He said he’s already just “hanging on” as the rising price of water and the effects of climate change including wildfires make it harder to farm.

“It’s just kind of an end of an era, for me, and I share the frustration of a lot of farmers in this state that we’re kind of being pushed out,” Snow said.

He places the future of his grove largely at the mercy of the Ramona Municipal Water District, one of 17 agencies in the San Diego region that exists exclusively to sell imported water to businesses and residents in mostly unincorporated areas through an expensive system of pipelines, pumps and storage tanks. 

In the Highland Valley, providing farmers with untreated water to irrigate their crops, including avocados and grapes, is no longer operationally or economically viable, according to a study paid for by the Ramona Water Municipal District. 

Russ Snow, a longtime farmer in the Highland Valley, works in his avocado grove between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

The study determined that maintaining and repairing the untreated water system would cost around $42 million above the amount the district is planning to get from current sales of the untreated water. The sales have dropped 91% from 2002 to 2019, in part due to destruction from a wildfire and in part due to the high price of water also hitting other San Diegans.

The district’s board of directors, who are locally elected, decided in July 2020 to decommission the entire untreated water system. In letters, the district told roughly 140 metered customers that their untreated water would be turned off and that they needed to decide whether to convert to the treated water system to continue receiving water. 

Switching to treated water would cost customers between $3,162 and $7,500 or more based on the size of the existing meter, according to the conversion form. The money would cover the cost of a new treated water meter and the installation of new pipes to connect to the system.

Seventy-five customers have chosen to convert to the treated water system or disconnected their meter from the untreated water system so far, according to a district spokesperson.

But some of the farmers are refusing to pay, saying they have already paid for their water infrastructure through a tax levied through an assessment district in 1979. They are asking whether forcing them to pay the conversion cost is legal and calling for the district to reconnect them to water free of charge once their untreated water service is turned off.

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

A debate over who will benefit

Craig Schmollinger, the Ramona Municipal Water District’s interim general manager, told inewsource the changes to the water service would avoid having to pass on millions of dollars in costs to customers, including farmers.

“It just wasn’t tenable for them, especially with the small incremental increase in cost for treated water purchase versus untreated water,” Schmollinger said about the farmers’ use of the untreated water system. “It’s an overall savings, and the board recognized that a dual system didn’t seem to make a lot of sense for that reason.”

The untreated water system serves roughly 1% of the district’s 9,800 meter connections, yet the costs of maintaining and repairing the system are more than the costs associated with repairing and maintaining the treated water system, he said.

Meanwhile, the rate for treated water is only slightly higher than the rate for untreated water.

Avocados are pictured on a farm in the Highland Valley between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

Schmollinger said that farmers aren’t losing a service – they’re getting a different type of service. 

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

The water district’s board of directors considered who should pay for the cost of the conversion and decided that the customers should because it’s a private benefit on private property, Schmollinger said.

But some of the farmers disagree. Snow and three other farmers in the region sent a four-page letter to their neighbors outlining their concerns. They argued that the switch is a general benefit to the whole district because of the overall savings it is likely to generate for all customers.

They also point to the district’s own code, which says that “if any water main is replaced, relocated or extended, any metered connection to such water main existing at the time of such replacement, relocation or extension, which is replaced in kind, shall be exempt from the payment of any connection charge.” 

Schmollinger said in an email to inewsource that the rules referenced by the farmers does not apply to the area of the district impacted by the conversion

Snow and the other farmers urged neighbors who had already paid to ask for a refund.

The last of multiple generations in the Highland Valley

Snow paints the fight over who should pay for the conversion as an example of how the country and the region aren’t doing enough to help small farmers like him survive or recognize the contributions farmers have made to build up water infrastructure.

His family is closely tied to the Highland Valley, where rolling hills between Poway, Ramona and Escondido are now dotted with a mix of avocado groves, wineries, farms and homes.

Snow’s grandfather bought a 360-acre ranch in the Highland Valley in the 1950s and was among a group that petitioned the Ramona Municipal Water District to first extend its water service to the area, paving the way for more thirsty crops including avocados.

Avocados are pictured on a farm in the Highland Valley between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

As agriculture grew in the valley, that water service wasn’t going to be enough. In 1979, the Ramona Municipal Water District decided to build an untreated water system to reduce the pressure on the treated water system.

In October of 2007, wildfires tore 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 and caused $24 million in losses in avocados alone.

Snow, who purchased property near his father’s ranch, had to abandon 10 of his 14 acres of avocado trees. The stumps had burned underground, he recalled.

San Diego growers also struggle with the increasing price of water, which has led some to change their crops. The county’s number of acres of avocados declined 28% between 2011 and 2021, according to the California Avocado Commission, and it ceded its spot as top avocado producer in the state to Ventura County, where water is cheaper. Boutique wineries relying on the less-thirsty grape have increasingly popped up in the Highland Valley.

Yet the San Diego County agriculture industry remains a powerful economic force, bringing in $1.8 billion in 2020, primarily from nurseries and cut flowers but also from avocados, vegetables and citrus.

Snow tends to his four remaining acres of avocado trees by himself, picking the fruit and selling them 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 one,” Snow said. “That’s tough.”

He’s considering replanting some of the avocado trees that burned during the wildfire, but he is concerned he will have to pay extra connection fees that did not previously apply for the use of the additional water. By one calculation, he estimated he would have to pay roughly $42,000 in fees to pull out the amount of water he needs for one acre of avocados.

Snow said he wants the Ramona Municipal Water District to cover the cost of the conversion and to grandfather in agricultural users who may want to increase their water consumption.

Little oversight of water districts

Customers of water districts have few recourses to correct treatment they think is unfair.

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

A water backflow is pictured near avocado farmer Russ Snow’s property in the Highland Valley between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)

Edward Lopez, the executive director of the Utility Consumers’ Advocacy Network, pointed out that as independent local governing agencies, municipal water districts are not regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission and can make their own decisions regarding costs and services. 

Lopez said water districts, which are governed by an elected board, must provide public notice for decisions and provide customers the opportunity to weigh in. The Ramona Municipal Water District held an informational workshop in May last year, in addition to considering the topic at several board meetings, sending letters and posting information on its website.

Water districts are also bound by their own rules, which, Lopez noted, the farmers and the district appear to be interpreting differently. But he could not comment in detail about the disagreement because he is not directly familiar with the issue.

“I certainly empathize with any customer facing rate shock or fees they didn’t previously have to pay,” Lopez said.

There is one local government watchdog agency that has some oversight power over water districts. 

The agency, called the San Diego County Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO,  reviewed the Ramona Municipal Water District last year as part of a standard multi-year process, but the report does not mention the water troubles facing the farmers, which some of them found frustrating.

Executive director Keene Simonds told inewsource the omission in the municipal review was a possible error. He said he could look more into it and prepare an addendum if ratepayers or the district formally requested it. 

LAFCO’s oversight role is otherwise limited. The agency mainly deals with adjusting jurisdictional boundaries and managing growth and does have the power to consolidate or dissolve a special district such as a water district if it has “lost its way.”

Simonds added that accommodating and supporting agriculture is increasingly more pertinent to the organization as it considers maintaining economic vitality.   

“This is a weighty topic with a lot of layers,” Simonds wrote in an email.

Top image: Russ Snow, a long time farmer in the Highland Valley, picks avocados on his farm between Ramona and Escondido on March 11, 2022. (Sandy Huffaker/inewsource)