Jim Madaffer is chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority. / Photo by Megan Wood

Jim Madaffer says he’s the new sheriff in town at the San Diego County Water Authority.

For anyone who doesn’t follow the intricacies or intrigues of what seems like it should be an agency with a straightforward mission – providing water for San Diego – this may sound like a bit of pabulum.

But Madaffer, the colorful former San Diego city councilman who has had numerous other roles on obscure but important agencies, is serious.

His first task after he became chairman of the Water Authority board was to clean house.

Gone now is Maureen Stapleton, the Water Authority’s long-time general manager who last year was accused by a board member of harassment. The agency conducted an investigation but never made its findings public. In February, Stapleton announced she would step aside, citing health challenges.

Her right-hand man and the agency’s public face for many years, Dennis Cushman, also just retired.

Now, as board chairman, Madaffer is in charge.

There’s a bit of irony in Madaffer running the Water Authority. In 2001, the Union-Tribune called him “irresponsible” after he got into a billing dispute with the city’s water department and didn’t pay his bills. The city water department, which he oversaw as a councilman, shut off his water three times.

“Let’s just say we all learn from our mistakes,” Madaffer said in a recent interview. “You apologize. And you move on.”

He’s now pushing a multibillion-dollar project to connect San Diego to the Colorado River with one or two tunnels into Imperial County.

The tunnel plan, which would take 20 years to build, would be the single largest, most expensive and complex project the Water Authority has ever attempted. If it happened, the project would shake up California water politics forever.

Madaffer said he now spends four to 10 hours a day on Water Authority business, a sign of just how much he wants to get done in his two-year term, which started on Oct. 1.

The main task, from which all else seems to stem, including the tunnel project, is somehow resolving  the Water Authority’s long-running disputes with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The two public agencies have been at war for years.

Metropolitan was created in the late-1920s to bring water from the Colorado River and the rivers of Northern California into Southern California. For years, the Water Authority, created in the 1940s, had a single role: buy water from Metropolitan and resell that water to smaller water agencies like the city of San Diego’s water department.

Then, after Metropolitan had failed to prepare for a major drought in the early-1990s and San Diego faced devastating water shortages, the Water Authority started trying to be more than just a go-between agency. It signed a decades-long contract to buy billions of dollars of water from farmers in Imperial County who have rights to as much Colorado River water as Arizona and Nevada combined. In 2015, the Water Authority also helped open a privately owned ocean water desalination plant in Carlsbad, which can meet about 10 percent of San Diego’s water needs.

That’s how Madaffer said he got involved with the Water Authority.

Back in the mid-2000s, when Madaffer was a city councilman, then-Mayor Dick Murphy – who shied away from controversy – needed someone to wade into a dispute between the Water Authority and Poseidon, the private company behind the desalination plant.

The Water Authority had been planning to build a plant on its own, but Poseidon came in and locked up the best site, a plot of land near the old Carlsbad power plant.

The Water Authority, upset that it had been outfoxed, wondered if it really had to work with Poseidon.

Yes, Madaffer helped conclude.

“I ended up after probably two months siding with the private sector and told Maureen, ‘Tough beans and you guys aren’t going to do it,’” he said, referring to Stapleton.

Then, about eight years later, Madaffer got involved again, on behalf of Mayor Jerry Sanders who this time put Madaffer on the Water Authority board.

It was 2012 and the Water Authority still hadn’t signed a final deal with Poseidon. The deal faced headwinds, including from Roger Bailey, the head of the city water department at the time who was skeptical about the whole project. But Sanders wanted a deal.

Madaffer knew water policy and had relationships with several Water Authority board members, with whom he served at the San Diego Association of Governments.

The Water Authority signed a deal with Poseidon. Poseidon assumed some risks, but the Water Authority agreed to buy expensive water from the plant, whether San Diegans needed it or not.

Madaffer has always been interested in infrastructure, which is maybe why he’s so interested in the Imperial County tunnel project. He served on the City Council from 2000 to 2008 and still talks fluently about the city’s attempt to bury overhead power lines or to upgrade its computer systems.

Over the years, he’s also led a lobbying group for hundreds of California cities; chaired the SANDAG board (its disgraced former leader, Gary Gallegos, is a good friend); and been appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown to the California Transportation Commission, which helped hand out $25 billion last year.

He now also runs his own lobbying firm, Madaffer Enterprises. His wife, Robin, is the firm’s general counsel. Clients have included Uber, the region’s largest trash hauling companies and HomeAway, a vacation rental company.

Now, at the Water Authority, he’s trying to settle disputes with Metropolitan, many of which involve the deal San Diego signed with Imperial. Even though the Water Authority is buying the water from Imperial, San Diego still has no way of getting that water here from the Colorado River without using an aqueduct owned by Metropolitan.

San Diego alleged in court that Metropolitan was charging too much to deliver that water. The courts, by and large, sided with Metropolitan, but there are still outstanding legal issues that the Water Authority wants to settle.

Madaffer is optimistic he can help resolve them.

He seems to think that’ll be easier with Stapleton and Cushman out.

“Metropolitan board members are mindful of the changes that taken place in San Diego, they’re mindful there’s a new sheriff in town,” he said. “They’re mindful that me and my other two board officers, along with the board, per se, is interested in a new era at the Water Authority.”

He could also get a hand from new leadership at the agency’s long-time foe. Metropolitan also has a new board leader, Chairwoman Gloria Gray, who’s interested in ending the dispute.

“I think Jim and I share a goal of trying to resolve those issues, finally,” she said. “Those are long-standing issues.”

He’s maybe the first consummate politician to lead the Water Authority’s unelected board in recent memory. The last chairman was an Encinitas city councilman, Mark Muir, but Muir was quiet and unassuming. Madaffer is not.

Even before he became chairman, Madaffer rammed through one major policy change, overturning years of staff work. For years, agency staffers had been openly skeptical of a plan to build a pair of tunnels in California’s Central Valley to help deliver water to Southern California.

But, by last year, that tunnel plan looked inevitable – Brown wanted to get the project started before he left the governor’s mansion. Madaffer concluded it didn’t make sense for the Water Authority, already considered a black sheep in the California water world, to keep fighting. So, he persuaded the Water Authority to change its position and support the project. That support came with a whole bunch of caveats, but it was a symbolic shift.

The tunnels project wasn’t, it turned out, inevitable. Gov. Gavin Newsom has since scaled back the project.

Now, Madaffer is at work on a tunnel project of his own.

In the 1930s, San Diego civic leaders tried to persuade the public to pay to connect San Diego to the Colorado River using the end of the All-American Canal, which diverts water from the Colorado River to irrigate about half a million acres of farmland in Imperial County. Voters twice rejected the idea.

The decision saved San Diego money in the short term but gave Metropolitan a monopoly over coastal Southern California water supplies. Metropolitan, created by the city of Los Angeles and its suburbs, built the Colorado River Aqueduct, which now delivers water from the Colorado straight into Riverside County where it can be routed to Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties.

Madaffer argues that if the Water Authority is going to pay Metropolitan billions of dollars to deliver Colorado River water to San Diego and remain beholden, why not spend billions to build an aqueduct of its own?

Any new tunnel from San Diego would need to be about 80 miles long or more.

Madaffer has also looked at a plan floated by former state Sen. Steve Peace that would build two tunnels to Imperial. One would bring water from the end of the All-American Canal into San Diego, the other would send treated wastewater back from San Diego to Imperial County to help fill the Salton Sea. The sea is a lake in Imperial that’s shrinking because there’s less water running off farms into the sea, in part because of the deal Imperial signed with San Diego.

In Madaffer’s estimation that would kill several birds with one stone: San Diego would have its own connection to the Colorado. Other states that use the Colorado might have more water to share, since there wouldn’t be a need to set aside freshwater for the Salton Sea. And, the city of San Diego could stop dumping treated wastewater into the ocean.

General managers from about half the agencies that buy water from the Water Authority wrote a letter saying there were “fatal law” questions about the ideas that remained unanswered, even though the Water Authority has spent millions studying similar ideas in 1996, 2002 and 2012.

Skeptics of the project point out that the Water Authority would go from being beholden to Metropolitan to being beholden to Imperial, especially since San Diego’s deal to buy water from Imperial isn’t permanent and has always been controversial.

Madaffer is asking for about $4 million for another study, citing changing conditions with the river and in the energy market. He’s also an Elon Musk fan and optimistic about finding cheaper ways to drill tunnels, something Musk has been talking about. (Madaffer drives a Tesla with the license plate “MR TESLA.”)

He’s also hoping California, the federal government and even Mexico may be interested in helping to pay for the project. Mexico shares the Colorado River with the United States.

“I’m looking at what are we going to be like 30 years beyond 2035,” Madaffer said.

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

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