The San Diego County Water Authority is floating a radical idea to upend how 19 million Southern Californians get their water.

The agency paid for a poll last month that asked voters whether they would support the state seizing control of water supplies across the region, including much of the water used in San Diego.

The $31,000 poll is part of an aggressive $220,000 campaign the Water Authority is waging against another public water agency, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

The Water Authority is a member of Metropolitan’s board and its biggest customer, but the two agencies have long been at odds. Water Authority officials blame Metropolitan for failing to prepare for a drought in the early-1990s and screwing San Diego then and now.

Most of the poll’s 62 questions were designed to test various messages that might turn voters against Metropolitan, a tactic typical of political polling. That alone is strange. One public agency does not usually poll to figure out how to damage another public agency’s reputation.

Beyond that, one question in the poll floated a policy shift that would affect the water supply of nearly everyone in California south of Bakersfield.

The poll asked whether “The state should step in and purchase water for our region until the MWD [Metropolitan] can correct its fiscal mismanagement.”

For the Water Authority to make such a suggest is bizarre: For the past two years, the agency has been criticizing Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration for trying to micromanage local water agencies during the drought. Now, it suggests some form of state control is the way to go.

Metropolitan is often seen as distinct force acting on behalf of Southern California, including San Diego, in the endless power struggles over water in this state. If the state were suddenly in charge, it’s possible other political interests – like Northern California environmentalists or powerful cliques of Central Valley farmers – could use their influence in Sacramento to gain more control.

During a board meeting last week, a few Water Authority board members wondered about the poll, which many of them had not seen before.

Water Authority assistant general manager Dennis Cushman told everyone not to take the question about state control too seriously.

“They don’t represent specific proposals that we’re recommending pursuing,” Cushman said.

Gary Arant, a member of the Water Authority’s board who was not involved in crafting the poll questions, told Cushman that even floating such ideas was dangerous.

“I’m just concerned sometimes these ideas take life and the next thing you know … ” he said.

Arant said he worried the state might decide to take control not only of Metropolitan but also of the Water Authority. The Water Authority has a governance structure nearly identical to Metropolitan’s.

Metropolitan collects water from Northern California and the Colorado River and resells it to other water agencies across Southern California, including the Water Authority. The Water Authority buys this water then resells it within San Diego to local agencies, like the city of San Diego’s water department.

The Water Authority is in the midst of a major lawsuit against Metropolitan, accusing it of heaping improper charges on San Diegans.

The Water Authority has adopted more unusual methods of trying to challenge Metropolitan, including a ratepayer-funded website called MWD Facts that criticizes Metropolitan’s decision-making. The information is often superficially accurate– it usually comes from Metropolitan’s own documents – but is presented in a slanted or incomplete way.

The Water Authority recently launched a new “Stop the Spending!” campaign.

The recent poll tested out several different attacks the Water Authority has been using. Among its main allegations is that Metropolitan has been wantonly spending hundreds of millions of dollars on turf rebates and on land in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta.

Metropolitan defends the turf rebates as a way to conserve water, and the land purchases as a way to prepare for the governor’s Twin Tunnels project, which has not yet been approved.

The Water Authority also accuses Metropolitan of collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in extra revenue by underestimating how much water it will sell each year. Metropolitan officials say they’ve had trouble predicting how much water they will sell because of variability in climate and weather patterns.

In the poll, the Water Authority also asked if voters would support legislation banning these “overcharges” or if they would support removing the general manager and board officers at Metropolitan.

Right now, Metropolitan’s board picks its own officers – chair, vice chairs, secretary – and the board also picks the general manager of Metropolitan. The Water Authority has one of the largest blocs of votes at Metropolitan, but nowhere near a majority. Indeed, because of the fights it picks, the Water Authority often does not have many allies on the board. None of its representatives are officers.

A majority of people polled supported those measures, but it’s not clear if they really understand the issues. At the beginning of the poll, 57 percent of the people surveyed said they knew little or nothing about Metropolitan.

The Water Authority’s outside consultants touted the fact that after giving voters more information about Metropolitan during the poll, people were likely to think negatively of Metropolitan.

Mark Muir, chairman of the Water Authority’s board, defended the poll during a board meeting last week. He said it was an informative public opinion poll, not a “push poll,” which is the term for a political dirty trick. The goal of a push poll is to spread negative messages about somebody or something under the guise of public opinion research.

Metropolitan wasn’t buying it.

“San Diego’s survey is a push poll designed to get results the County Water Authority desires and it’s an unfortunate waste of ratepayer money,” said Bob Muir, Metropolitan’s spokesman.

It’s not unusual for the Water Authority to poll people about their attitudes toward water service. But those polls are typically of customers in San Diego. The recent poll was unusual because it surveyed people across Southern California – outside of the Water Authority’s service area – and only included registered voters.

A person does not need to be a registered voter to use water, so it’s possible the results of the poll don’t really represent the sentiments of the general population – about a quarter of Californians are not registered to vote.

Mike Lee, a spokesman for the Water Authority, said the decision to sample only voters was “to ensure a basic level of civic engagement by respondents.”

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

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