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It’s Beef Week at Voice of San Diego. We’re explaining some of the region’s long-running tensions — and the characters behind them — to help you understand civic affairs in San Diego.
This post has been updated.
Their long-lasting grudge affects the daily lives of 19 million Californians, and perhaps the future of civilization in the American West.
The San Diego County Water Authority and its larger rival, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, have the same basic mission: deliver water to Southern Californians. But for some reason they just can’t do it without a fight.
In one token of their ongoing struggle, the agencies have spent more than $33 million to fight each other on just one issue.
“It’s like a bad marriage, we can’t seem to fix it, but we can’t get out of it either, so it is what it is,” said Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger.
It formally began when San Diego joined Metropolitan in December 1946. San Diego needed more water than the skies overhead or the ground below could provide. And Metropolitan had more water at the time than it could sell. So, by 1949, the Water Authority was buying half of Metropolitan’s water.
They remain inextricably bound by both contracts and concrete. The vast majority of San Diego County’s water comes from Metropolitan – and San Diego has a seat on Metropolitan’s board and remains Metropolitan’s biggest customer.
To understand this rivalry, it helps to know about another: the one between Los Angeles and San Diego. Los Angeles helped found Metropolitan in 1928 and has always had sway there because of the way voting rights were divvied up to cities with the largest tax base.
Tensions may have always existed, but while water was plenty, conflicts were few. And for decades, water was about as plentiful as one could hope for in a desert.
That changed in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Drought prompted Metropolitan to consider massive cutbacks. Because San Diego was then almost entirely dependent on Metropolitan water, the County Water Authority found itself on the brink of ordering everybody in the county to cut their water use by 50 percent.
The danger passed: In the “Miracle March” of 1991, it suddenly it rained a lot.
One crisis averted, San Diego began a quest to distance itself from Metropolitan and become water independent. That’s more or less when the real conflicts began.
Dennis Cushman, assistant general manager for County Water Authority, said Metropolitan had a “monopoly stranglehold” over San Diego’s water supply. Ever since 1991, San Diego has worked to break it.
San Diego had done three major things to diversify its water supply in the past quarter-century:
• It lined two canals – the All-American Canal and the Coachella Canal – to increase the amount of water flowing west from the Colorado River.
• It entered into a decades-long agreement to buy massive amounts of Colorado River water from the Imperial Irrigation District.
• And, it helped fund a desalination plant to take seawater and make it drinkable.
None of the moves was without conflict, and the deal with the Imperial Irrigation District is causing trouble to this day.
Metropolitan tried to undermine San Diego’s 1998 deal to get water from Imperial.
The battle calmed in 2003 when Metropolitan, San Diego, Imperial and a bunch of other parties signed something called the Quantification Settlement Agreement, a document that water folks just call the “Q.S.A.” San Diego got to keep most – but not all – of the Imperial water it had bargained for.
But a big problem remained: San Diego never built its own set of pipes to get Colorado River water. So, to get that water, County Water Authority had to rely on the same delivery system it always had: Metropolitan’s.
San Diego says it postponed the fight over how to deal with water deliveries when it signed another deal with Metropolitan that had “peace treaty” language in it. The County Water Authority says this created a five-year cooling off period.
“We agreed in that agreement to kind of move off the battlefield and onto the sidelines so we could get the Q.S.A. transfers,” Cushman said.
During those peaceful years, San Diego and Metropolitan’s lawyers together fought off challenges by others to the Q.S.A.
Then, the two agencies turned back to fighting each other.
San Diego, having won the clear rights to keep a huge chunk of Imperial’s Colorado River water, said Metropolitan was now charging too much to deliver that water.
Last spring, California Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow agreed. The judge found that Metropolitan had improperly heaped charges on San Diego.
Metropolitan owes San Diego $188 million for overcharges from 2011 to 2014, according to the County Water Authority. The judge is expected to decide on a figure this summer in phase two of the trial, which is wrapping up Friday in San Francisco.
Whatever happens, expect an appeal and more years in court.
In the meantime, Metropolitan has spent $19.5 million in legal fees and just shy of $34,000 on lawsuit-related public relations, according to an agency spokeswoman.
Cushman points out these millions are far outweighed by the $2 billion in costs San Diego hopes to avoid paying Metropolitan if the Water Authority wins the lawsuit. He also notes that San Diego can recover legal fees from Metropolitan.
Of course, all this money, one way or another, comes from water customers.
David Zetland, an economics professor at Leiden University College in the Netherlands, wrote his dissertation on the fight between the County Water Authority and Metropolitan. He said both agencies need to grow up.
“They’ve got money to burn,” he said. But, “it’s not their money.”
Zetland said most people don’t know what happens at either agency, and that allows the fight to continue unabated.
“The citizens of the area don’t have a clue,” Zetland said, “and that’s why they are allowed to keep screwing up repeatedly.”
If San Diego is bitter over Metropolitan’s heavy handedness, Kightlinger is dismissive of San Diego’s search for independence. While San Diego has stopped buying so much water from Metropolitan, it still relies on Metropolitan to deliver that water.
Kightlinger puts it this way: Metropolitan delivered roughly a half million acre feet of water to San Diego in 1991 and Metropolitan delivered roughly half a million feet of San Diego’s water in 2014. (An acre foot, the big unit that water officials use when they talk, is about 325,000 gallons of water.)
“To them it’s very important they can put a different label on the molecules,” he said of San Diego. But, “To the Met world, it made no difference they did this.”
To San Diego water officials, it’s a very big deal. They talk about a struggle to have water they can call their own, water that Metropolitan shouldn’t be able to touch in a drought.
Cushman said San Diego is “perpetually optimistic” about working with Metropolitan in the future. During an interview in which Cushman called Metropolitan’s operations “un-America,” “unjust” and “completely perverse,” he also said the two agencies work together about 90 percent of the time or more.
The desalinated water, another big investment, is already set to pay off: San Diego expects to have extra water in the coming year, in part because of that new desal plant. That’s extra expensive water, though. But it doesn’t pass through Metropolitan’s system.
Peter Gleick, co-founder of the Pacific Institute, which studies water policy, said the desal plant is “an expensive way to give the finger to Met, which is sort of what San Diego is doing.”
Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated the amount of water Metropolitan delivered to San Diego in 1991 and 2014.