LOS ANGELES — The San Diego City Council approved a plan to hike water rates by nearly 35% in stair steps over a four-year period.

The City Council approved the measure in a 7-2 vote Tuesday after five hours of public comment with initial increases totaling 16.2% coming in 2016 split between a 9.8% hike in January and 6.4% increase in June.

Opponents of the bill say the hikes are too steep, punish San Diegans after successful efforts to conserve water during the drought and will result in low-income residents having their water turned off.

Supporters say the rate increase is necessary to reduce the city's dependence on imported water and to fund a desalination plant in Carlsbad and a $3.5 billion plan to recycle treated sewage into drinking water. City staff said if the city doesn't implement the recycled water plan at the Point Loma Wastewater Plant, federal mandates would force $2 billion in improvements and accompanying rate hikes.

The "decision was necessary to secure the future of San Diego's water supply and infrastructure," San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer said.

The new water rate structure "will ensure the city continues to replace aging water mains and invests in creating a local, drought-proof water supply so the city is less dependent on costly imported water," the mayor said.

"The failure to act would not make the problem go away, it would just make it worse," Faulconer said.

Conservation played a role in the size of the water increase, because it resulted in the city's Utilities Department bringing in $80 million less than projected, testified Halla Razak, director of the city's Department of Public Utilities, during the meeting.

"Every water agency in California is grappling with this," she said.

Councilman David Alvarez, who voted against the measure, said the city should create a rate structure based on water use. He also wanted a zonal rate charge, because he doesn't think South Bay residents who paid for improvements to a wastewater plant in their region without an overall rate hike should have to help fund the Point Luma plant improvements.

The council also supported an amendment for city staff to complete a study by February on providing a subsidy for low-income residents that could include money from the general fund. A previous plan involved having a check box on the bill where residents could donate to help lower-income residents.

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