Photo by Sam Hodgson

After almost 80 years of suckling the proverbial teat that brings fresh water from the Colorado River and Sierra Nevadas to San Diego, the local water manager is hatching a plan to unlatch.

And like a child that’s been dependent on a mother figure that long, the relationship between these two warring water authorities has become fraught over the years.

The San Diego County Water Authority depends on river water from the north and east, so it’s been tied to the L.A.-based Metropolitan Water District, which controls the system that transports it. San Diego can’t afford to turn away from those water sources that supported its growth from a small farming mission to a sprawling metropolis.

Instead, San Diego County Water Authority is seriously considering building a duplicate pipeline through the desert and Cleveland National Forest to break free from Metropolitan, or Met, which controls truck-sized pipes and canals from the Colorado River.

It could be the most expensive public works project in San Diego’s 170-year history and the idea has been discussed for decades but was long written off as unthinkable. Now officials are rethinking it – yet again.

“It’s about, how can we get water back to our region cheaper than Metropolitan?” said the Water Authority Chair Jim Madaffer, one of 10 board directors representing San Diego, during an Aug. 27 board meeting.

The Colorado River provides about 64 percent of Southern California’s water now through a series of aqueducts constructed in the 1930s. San Diego doesn’t have any large, local freshwater sources to speak of, so when the Navy decided to build its base here – spurring its development into the eighth most populous U.S. city – the Water Authority connected its water infrastructure to Met’s in the late 1940s.

About 75 percent of San Diego County’s water flows through a system controlled by Met. San Diego County once bought 95 percent of its water from that entity. But a drought decades ago made San Diego officials worry they were too dependent on that source.

Metropolitan sets its own water rates. The Water Authority builds that cost into its rates.

That duplicate pipe San Diego wants to build, which would sit parallel to the one Met uses now, wouldn’t produce any savings for ratepayers until at least 2063 – costing two generations of ratepayers at least $5 billion to build. The Water Authority estimates the pipe could save ratepayers other billions – eventually.

“We’re in this board room planning for our great-grandchildren,” said Keith Lewinger, a board member from Carlsbad Municipal Water District.

The Water Authority studied the pipe dream at least five times in the past. The route it’s most jazzed about now was ditched in its 1996 plan because it was more expensive than the others.

The route the Water Authority’s hired consultants, Black and Veatch, seem to be leaning toward would stretch 132 miles from the southern tip of the Salton Sea, along SR 78 through Anza Borrego State Park. It would tunnel underneath the Volcan Mountains, Mesa Grande Reservation and Cleveland National Forest, along the northern border of San Pasqual Reservation, eventually terminating at the Twin Oaks Valley Water Treatment Plant.

Water Authority's Pipe Dream
The San Diego County Water Authority favors the route in red, which would require tunneling through a mountain range to bring Colorado River water to the region. / Image via Black and Veatch

The route would require a magnificent amount of energy to pump water through a tunnel underneath the Cuyamaca mountain range, but less than other alternatives studied by consultants that opted to pump it over the peaks. In fact, the majority of the ongoing cost for the project wouldn’t be the water itself but paying for the energy to get it here. Black and Veatch estimated the new pipe would cost $143 million annually to maintain, $95 million of which is solely for energy to support water pumping and treatment.

The favored option would use an estimated 774 gigawatt-hours per year, the middle of the pack among the three options. That’s enough to power more than 124,000 homes in San Diego. It would require the region to erect multiple new electric transmission lines through San Diego Gas and Electric territory to power the pumps that get the water where it would need to go. Potential greenhouse gas emissions from the projects weren’t calculated by the consultants.

Met’s general manager, Jeffrey Kightlinger, said the agency is “agnostic” about the project.

“It’s not going to have a big impact on us one way or another,” he said.

Sure, he acknowledged Met’s other customers would have to shoulder the price San Diego paid to support maintenance of its sprawling system. But Kightlinger said the agency would have at least 15 years to plan for that if San Diego decided to move forward – and all the while the Water Authority would still be paying off existing agreements that wouldn’t expire for over 20 years.

“It’s up to San Diego what they think is the best measure of redundancy that makes sense to them,” Kightlinger said.

Duel Over Future Water Price

So $5 billion to build, hundreds of millions more over time to operate – and the project likely wouldn’t produce a drop more water than San Diego already gets. All that investment is to guarantee local control over setting San Diego County’s water rates.

The Water Authority directors (there are 36, most of whom are elected officials) contracted Black and Veatch for about $1.8 million to study the route for a new pipe.

But the general managers of each water district that the Water Authority sells to wanted a second opinion. They hired their own consultants to fact-check Black and Veatch and Water Authority staffers’ data. The difference in opinion is pretty stark.

Since the purpose of the parallel pipe is to save money and get off Met’s teat, what economists forecast citizens will have to pay for water in the future is the central question. Will people save money over time, or will it cost more?

“If this conveyance project showed it’d cost a dime more than what we’re paying Met in the future to move water, I won’t support it,” Madaffer, the Water Authority chair, said during the Aug. 27 meeting.

Black and Veatch think Met will raise its rates about 5 percent each year. They projected the cost for fully treated water by 2048 (when the Water Authority’s agreements with Met expire) will be $2,691 per acre foot. Met currently charges $1,078 per acre foot for that kind of water now.

(One acre foot is roughly enough to cover a football field in a foot of water, and it’s the unit water wonks like to use. Two four-person families use about that much water in a year.)

Side note: San Diego actually had an opportunity to lock itself into set and lower rates than Met’s other customers until 2047, a litigation settlement offer the Water Authority recently walked away from.

The other batch of counter-consultants hired by the general managers – from the group DLM Engineering Inc. and Gillingham Water — think Black and Veatch is overestimating.

Future water prices depend heavily on predicting how much water people will consume. That depends on what the weather will be like – will we have more rain and therefore less demand for imported water from the river? – and whether Californians became more conservation-conscious, as it generally has from past megadroughts.

The counter-consultants wager the Met wouldn’t allow rates to rise that high that quickly because it’d lose customers.

“If (Met’s) costs were to continue to increase as forecast by the Water Authority, then (Met) would have no choice but to adjust its rate structure,” wrote Doug Gillingham, a civil engineer who worked on two previous studies of the parallel pipeline, in an Aug. 26 letter to the Water Authority board.

Pipe Politics

The Water Authority is also gambling on how much water it’ll need to secure in the future for its 24 member agencies. That will be impacted by its largest customer, the city of San Diego, when it builds its Pure Water wastewater recycling system, which is supposed to supply a third of its residents’ needs.

And, two rural customers – Fallbrook and Rainbow – are in the process of leaving the Water Authority because they’re fed up with its rising rates.

The Water Authority board spent about an hour arguing over whether to proceed with the second phase of the parallel pipe plan at its Aug. 27 meeting. The board received about 15 letters supporting the project from organizations like the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, and over 500 against it, the Water Authority’s attorney said.

Madaffer proposed staff move forward with a second phase of study, which is essentially a campaign to run key points of the project by organizations, politicians and other stakeholders and look for grant funding. It would also have given Black and Veatch the green light to begin environmental studies to comply with national and state environmental quality laws.

The board almost unanimously approved the cost of that phase during a July meeting. But a number of board members balked at the idea a month later – saying they didn’t have enough time to consume the 500-plus-page Black and Veatch report or the subsequent consultant’s report that challenged a number of findings.

Directors instead decided to delay a vote on the second phase until November to allow time for more discussion, at the urging of Sandra Kerl, the Water Authority’s general manager who wrote a letter suggesting just that – at odds with Madaffer, the board chair.

‘A Stupid Idea’

Even if the Water Authority could get enough votes from its directors to move forward on a parallel pipe, the project faces a mountain of environmental studies and a decade of permit- or permission-seeking from 19 different government agencies before it can break ground.

Black and Veatch wrote the project could impact state parks, tribal lands, wilderness areas and a national forest, including sensitive habitats or species. The Native American Heritage Commission did not return a request seeking comment about the project’s proximity or infringement on dedicated tribal lands.

“Even if we ignored the political and legal obstacles, this is a really stupid idea,” said Richard Carson, an environmental and resource economist at the University of California, San Diego.

Carson said after California ceded some of its Colorado River water to Arizona some years ago – and as more states begin to take less from the fragile resource – there’s plenty of capacity to deliver any water San Diego needs in the system owned by Met.

“From that perspective, (this) is just spending money that doesn’t need to be spent,” he said. “If you had two parallel interstate highways and neither of them were congested, it would be a stupid financial decision. It’s just that simple.”

Carson suggested it would take an effort by California’s governor to force the Water Authority and Met to play nice.

The two sides don’t trust each other, Carson said, because once they’ve dug so hard into legal positions and court filings, it’s hard to leave that path.

The Water Authority began suing Met every couple of years when it passes a new budget in 2010. It’s also sued over how much Met charges San Diego for delivering water from a deal cut with Imperial Irrigation District, the biggest Colorado River customer.

Carson also warned that “there’s a fortune” to be made off building the parallel pipe.

“It’s a major public works project that creates an independent force driving to do it,” he said. “At some point, you say, how much are you willing to spend for make-work projects?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how many homes could be powered using the amount of energy the parallel pipe would require; it’s enough to power more than 124,000 homes.

Leave a comment

We expect all commenters to be constructive and civil. We reserve the right to delete comments without explanation. You are welcome to flag comments to us. You are welcome to submit an opinion piece for our editors to review.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.