When a group of water officials from California, Nevada and Arizona get together behind closed doors to talk about potential cuts to California’s share of the precious and dwindling Colorado River, representatives from San Diego County Water Authority are not present.

They’re not invited, even though some of the multi-state negotiations have happened in San Diego. Even though the Water Authority depends on the Colorado River for about two-thirds of its water – any cuts to California’s supplies could affect how much water San Diego can use.

An official involved in the talks said the Water Authority’s “negativity” was an issue for those who are at the table.

That refers to the Water Authority’s long-running series of disputes with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

“I personally would much rather see San Diego involved, but this issue of negativity – it seems like anything that is a positive to Metropolitan, San Diego is not willing to [do],” said Bart Fisher, who has participated in the Colorado River talks as chairman of both the Colorado River Board of California and the Palo Verde Irrigation District’s governing board.

Fisher said he welcomed giving the Water Authority a seat at the table – but he was the only one.

The negativity issue makes clear the tensions within the California water world. Some of this is very public and clear from board votes, public comments, lawsuits and even a Water Authority-funded anti-Metropolitan website.

Some of the tensions are alluded to privately, when observers or participants suggest that San Diego could get better deals for itself if it was more amicable with Metropolitan.

It’s hard to tell if that’s actually true. It’s a counterfactual, impossible to test and disputed by the Water Authority.

San Diego relies on Metropolitan for most of its water, is Metropolitan’s biggest customer and has seats on Metropolitan’s board, though not enough votes of its own to force Metropolitan to do anything.

For a quarter-century, the Water Authority has worked to distance itself from Metropolitan by helping to build a local desalination plant and buying access to its own supplies of Colorado River water. (The Water Authority still depends on Metropolitan to transport that river water to San Diego, so much of the separation is just on paper.)

Last year, the Water Authority’s representatives to the Metropolitan Board of Directors did not support about a fifth of the actions the Metropolitan board considered.

The Water Authority is sometimes on the losing side of board votes, like when it objected to millions of dollars spent on turf rebates.

Sometimes, though, it has allies, like when Metropolitan staff proposed and then the board tabled a plan to change how it charges for treated water.

Other times, the Water Authority is alone and then finds some vindication: A judge ruled last year that Metropolitan overcharged the Water Authority for some of the Colorado River that Metropolitan delivered to San Diego County in from 2011 to 2014. Now, according to that ruling, Metropolitan owes the Water Authority $243 million, plus legal fees and interest.

Metropolitan is appealing that decision. The Water Authority, hoping that Metropolitan’s appeal fails, is pursuing separate lawsuits to collect hundreds of millions more for rates Metropolitan charged it in other years, including the current year.

The Water Authority argues this is not needless rancor. Besides, the Colorado River talks are a whole different thing – so any “negativity” one place should not affect its invitation to another.

“Our lawsuits against MWD are designed to force MWD to follow state law when setting its rates, and our position has been clearly supported by a Superior Court ruling,” Water Authority spokesman Mike Lee said in an email, referring to the Metropolitan Water District. “That’s an entirely separate issue from how to address potential shortages on the Colorado River, and it shouldn’t have any bearing on our standing in those negotiations.”

Sometimes, someone in the Water Authority camp will allow that what it’s doing can be irritating, though still necessary.

“Sometimes we’re trying to improve our relationship up there, but sometimes we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Michael Hogan, a Water Authority representative with a seat on the Metropolitan board, told me last year.

Negativity is not the official reason for keeping the Water Authority out of the Colorado River negotiations.

That would be the fact that the Water Authority does not have a federal contract to receive water from the Colorado River. When San Diego receives Colorado River water, that water comes directly or indirectly from Metropolitan or the Imperial Irrigation District, which both have federal contracts. The other two California water agencies involved in the multistate talks – Palo Verde and the Coachella Valley Water District – are also federal contractors.

“I’m comfortable that they are looking after the state’s interest,” said David Pettijohn, director of water resources for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which is not involved in the talks either.

Unlike Los Angeles, which San Diego has accused of playing an outsize role in Metropolitan’s decision-making, the Water Authority is obviously not comfortable that others have its back.

Ry Rivard

Ry Rivard was formerly a reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about water and power.

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