Wherever you live in San Diego County, odds are good that when you turn on your faucet, two agencies have been responsible for getting that water to you from hundreds of miles away.
The Metropolitan Water District, based in Los Angeles, takes huge amounts of water from the Sacramento Delta and the Colorado River and delivers it to cities throughout Southern California.
Its largest customer is the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys water from Metropolitan and then sells it to local cities like San Diego.
Both Metropolitan and the County Water Authority are wholesalers. They build and maintain big infrastructure like dams, reservoirs and aqueducts. They don’t bill homeowners or maintain local water pipes. Local cities do that.
For almost two years, Metropolitan and the County Water Authority have been locked in a legal battle over the rates Metropolitan charges for its water. The authority, which is a member of Metropolitan, sued the agency in 2010, alleging that Metropolitan overcharged San Diego by tens of millions of dollars annually, contributing to the constant rate increases that have sent water bills skyrocketing here.
The County Water Authority lacks its own connection to the Colorado River, so it relies on Metropolitan to deliver San Diego’s share of the river. In turn, Metropolitan charges San Diego for transporting the water through its system. But San Diego says it’s getting charged for much more than the costs of transportation. The authority says Metropolitan is charging millions for unrelated costs that have nothing to do with transportation — all to the benefit of Metropolitan’s other member agencies in Orange County and Los Angeles.
In the last two weeks, the legal fight has turned into a brutal public relations battle. The County Water Authority has gone on the offensive, sending email blasts to reporters, releasing troves of documents and alleging that Metropolitan is being run by what it calls “a shadow government,” one that’s conspiring to overcharge San Diegans for their water.
The County Water Authority last week released a three-inch thick binder of emails from Metropolitan’s member agencies that it obtained through public records requests, which are likely to be part of the authority’s court case. And the authority has also launched a website, MWDFacts.com, simultaneously trying to make its case in the court of public opinion.
Metropolitan has said the water authority is mischaracterizing what’s happening and has accused the San Diego agency of being paranoid.
The fight is unusual: A brutal, head-to-head battle between two public agencies that rely on each other for survival. Here are five key things to remember.
1. These two agencies have a history. And it isn’t pretty.
To understand the down-and-dirty fight between the County Water Authority and Metropolitan, first understand this: The two agencies actually signed a peace treaty in 2003.
Seriously, a peace treaty.
They agreed not to sue each other for five years as part of a humongous 2003 water deal that, among other things, allowed San Diego to begin paying farmers in Imperial County to fallow their fields in exchange for the water they would’ve used to grow crops. (That’s the water that Metropolitan transports and is at the center of the current fight.)
As soon as that peace treaty expired, San Diego began preparing for the litigation it eventually filed in 2010. And here we are.
2. This all sounds very familiar.
Why would these public agencies need a peace treaty? Because they’ve done this before.
The County Water Authority fought Metropolitan a decade ago and lost. In 2001, the authority sued Metropolitan, saying San Diego was owed more water than Metropolitan would deliver during droughts. But courts said they weren’t going to get involved in Metropolitan’s affairs. Years of appeals were unsuccessful.
There’s another parallel. In the late 1990s, Metropolitan’s members (which include agencies throughout Los Angeles and Orange County), set up a front group that opposed San Diego’s efforts to buy water from Imperial County farmers. State legislators outlawed such groups in 1999 after the front group hired a company to do opposition research on those very lawmakers.
So why not just quit Metropolitan? Because we need the water it sells and we can’t get it anywhere else as cheaply. The authority has worked to wean itself off Metropolitan’s supply since the early 1990s, but San Diego remains dependent on the agency to keep taps flowing here.
3. Don’t solely blame Metropolitan for skyrocketing water rates.
No matter the legality of Metropolitan’s water rates, other factors are pushing your water bill higher, too. The city of San Diego repeatedly raised rates between 2007 and 2010 to pay for state-mandated improvements to its aging treatment plants and pipes. And the County Water Authority has increased rates to help pay for $3.8 billion in infrastructure projects meant to increase local supplies. Metropolitan has increased its rates, too.
They may all be blaming each other, but you can safely blame all of them.
4. If you’re a public official and you’re going to call your exclusive group something secret, you’d better not do it by email.
A group of 20 water agencies that are members of Metropolitan has been meeting and discussing the County Water Authority’s lawsuit and even hired a former Metropolitan general manager, Ron Gastelum, as a consultant. Their meeting agendas and many emails the authority released blandly refer to the group as the “Member Agency Managers MWD Working Group.”
But in one email the County Water Authority obtained, a public works official for the city of Beverly Hills, an agency participating in the effort, calls the group “The Secret Society.”
“It’s what I briefed you about from the last Secret Society Meeting,” the official, Chris Theisen, says in the email. “Ron Gastelum is the former [Metropolitan] CEO that the Secret Society hired as an advisor.”
Metropolitan has said the meetings aren’t secret. But they’re not open to the public or to the County Water Authority.
5. A whole lot of money is at stake for everyone involved.
While the litigation is pending, Metropolitan has to put the disputed money paid by the County Water Authority into a special account. The total set aside last year: $38 million. By 2014, the authority estimates the account will hold $200 million. Over 45 years, the authority estimates between $1.3 billion and $2.1 billion are at stake for local residents.
If San Diego won, those costs would be borne instead by residents of Orange County, Los Angeles and elsewhere. It explains why the authority has spent $1.5 million on legal fees related to the case.
Rob Davis is a senior reporter at voiceofsandiego.org. You can contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619.325.0529.
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