A meeting of the San Diego County Water Authority. / Photo by Sam Hodgson

Opposition is building against San Diego’s dream of erecting a $5 billion pipeline to the Colorado River in the name of resource independence.

The pipe, which wouldn’t produce savings for ratepayers until at least 2063, faces its next trial on Thursday, when water managers meet to vote on spending another $1.7 million to do the next planning step. But well in advance of that meeting, nine of the San Diego County Water Authority’s member water agencies cosigned an opposition letter to newly appointed chair Gary Croucher from the Otay Water District.

The project “fails on many fronts” to prove be financially viable as an infrastructure project, economically competitive with other water supply or transportation options and doesn’t add any new water or reliability to the region, the letter says.

Other parties like Borrego Springs Water District, which is not part of the San Diego consortium, wrote to the Water Authority on Sept. 22 that it’s worried the pipeline would plow through the Anza Borrego desert, thereby dipping into its service territory. The Imperial County Farm Bureau wrote in on Sept. 28 to say its board voted not to support the pipeline project and asked for more information on how it would benefit their landowners.

But the project’s fate may also depend on courting the Imperial Irrigation District, its neighbor to the east and one of the largest holders of water rights in the West.

The district’s five-member board – responsible for cutting water deals – got two new directors this November. At least one is wholly against the pipeline designed to free San Diego from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District, which controls the system transporting Colorado River water south.

That’s J.B. Hamby, a 24-year-old recent Stanford graduate who said his family farms in the area.

“This deal can only go through if IID (Imperial Irrigation District) agrees to it because it physically requires tapping into (our) system,” Hamby said.

Hamby campaigned to “Stop the San Diego Pipeline” in YouTube political ads, where he stood clad in Ray Bans before a pipe trailered into a lush field. In the video, Hamby claimed the parallel pipe would “suck” Imperial Valley dry and threaten the region’s water rights.

Apparently, that messaging was effective. Hamby won almost 66 percent of the vote over his opponent Ryan Childers.

The Water Authority has said the pipeline wouldn’t take or produce a drop more water than the San Diego region already gets from the Colorado River. For them, it’s a battle for local control over setting water rates.

The next phase of the project 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 give consultants the green light to begin environmental studies to comply with national and state environmental quality laws.

Hamby’s not so sure. He figures if San Diego builds its own pipeline, that means Metropolitan has less to transport through its own mega aqueduct system built a century ago.

“If you remove San Diego and take their supplies out of the system … you have a giant empty space in the Met’s aqueduct… which runs the risk of becoming a stranded asset,” Hamby said.

That would draw the eye of water providers like Metropolitan looking for more supply to Imperial Valley.

“We’re the single largest user on the river and we’re also the biggest target,” Hamby said.

Javier Gonzalez, a community organizer who’s also the presumed victor to take over another seat on the Imperial Irrigation District’s board, said he’s “totally against” the project if it takes water away from Imperial Valley.

“We are the salad bowl of the Southwest,” he said. “It’s like if you give a mouse a cookie, they’re going to ask for more and more.”

Hamby is replacing Bruce Kuhn, a 17-year veteran of the board who cast a swing vote allowing San Diego to secure a bunch of extra water from Imperial in 2003.

Kuhn said he wasn’t “totally against” San Diego’s pipeline project during a Sept. 22 meeting with the Water Authority, a perspective he said he’d probably “catch hell for.”

His interest: the huge amount of power the new pipeline would need to get the water from the river, through Imperial Valley and onto San Diego.

The Imperial Irrigation District is the most powerful political player in Imperial County. It not only oversees water, the lifeblood of the Imperial Valley, but it is also the county’s electricity provider. The district board is also in charge of running the public power company that delivers electricity to Imperial Valley and the eastern half of Coachella Valley.

San Diego’s pipeline would need an estimated 774 gigawatt-hours of power to pump all that water (that’s enough to power more than 124,000 homes in San Diego). That’s a pretty attractive contract for Imperial and/or San Diego Gas and Electric, which both operate in the territory.

But Kuhn said Hamby’s messaging about the pipeline sucking Imperial Valley dry didn’t tell the whole story.

“I can understand wanting to get out from under the Met,” Kuhn said. “But people down here only saw a straw that would take a bunch more (water) when they wanted it. And that scared the hell out of them.”

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