Photo by Sam Hodgson

How should power over water decisions in San Diego be divided?

Should the city of San Diego, which represents almost 40 percent of the region’s water consumers, have the most sway?

Or should smaller cities be on equal footing when the outcome of a decision could harm towns with less people and money?

That is the question facing San Diego County Water Authority once again, after the latest vote over a $5 billion duplicate pipeline to the Colorado River. Directors voted down spending $1.7 million more to study the project further, in raw numbers. Twenty of the agency’s 36 directors said no to the pipeline, and 14 said yes.

But what matters is that a majority of board members from the city of San Diego voted yes. The city gets 10 votes because it’s the largest and represents almost 40 percent of the Water Authority’s rate-paying population.

So the pipeline project continues, though there’s substantial disagreement with it.

That irks Valley Center Municipal Water District’s general manager, Gary Arant.

“My concern is with them having that much voting power, you get worried about what happens down the road if it comes time to allocate the costs,” Arant said.

That’s because San Diego’s budget managers told the Water Authority the city probably couldn’t afford to pay for the pipeline, because it’s already building a $3.5 billion water recycling system slated to be complete by the time real pipeline construction would begin around 2035.

Arant called for the Water Authority to re-examine its voting system in a Nov. 23 letter, asking it to consider a model that works in a similar spirit as Congress where, in order for a bill to pass it must pass both the U.S. House of Representatives, which represents state population, and the Senate, where each state is guaranteed two lawmakers.

The model he prefers was in use at the San Diego Association of Governments, the regional planning agency, until state legislation recently changed its voting structure. Under the old system, in order for something to pass at SANDAG, it had to clear two hurdles: win a majority of the vote based on population/ratepayers; and win a majority of raw votes from each leader of a member agency.

So it’s actually like a vote in the House and Senate occurring at the same time.

In the context of the Water Authority’s latest vote, the pipeline would have failed under a SANDAG dual-voting system because though it won the weighted vote, it didn’t win the raw vote.

Arant said that system would force the Water Authority to do a lot more “consensus-building” to win the hearts of its smaller agencies on future policy direction.

“Instead of counting on weighted votes of three or four agencies, there would have to be a lot of work done on bringing the other agencies in agreement with what they really want to do, whether that’s the pipeline or not,” Arant said.

Valley Center, for instance, doesn’t want the pipeline because it won’t generate any new water to the region – and the region doesn’t need any, he said.

The Water Authority’s chair, Gary Croucher, responded to Arant’s letter the next day, with examples of other big votes that passed by a slim margin.

“Many believe that if voting were to occur based on head count or number of agencies, as you suggest, small agencies would have an unfair voting advantage,” Croucher wrote. “Any proposed changes you may wish to pursue would require state legislation.”

That’s what happened in 2017 when Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez pushed for a change of SANDAG’s voting governance after the agency was besieged by scandal. Now, any four cities representing a majority of the county’s population could invoke a weighted vote on an item and overrule the raw vote.

It’s unclear whether other Water Authority member agencies will join forces with Arant to push for a voting change. The agency’s next regular meeting is Jan. 28.

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