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San Diego’s proposal to build its own $5 billion pipeline to the Colorado River and bypass paying Los Angeles for water is now in a state of the undead –technically lifeless unless local water officials choose to revive it again.
The San Diego County Water Authority last resurrected the idea to build its own pipeline from the major water source in September 2020. It was an effort to free its dependence on the Los Angeles Metropolitan Water District, which owns the only aqueduct – and San Diego’s only connection – to the Colorado River.
Dan Denham, the Water Authority’s deputy general manager, confirmed Thursday that it’s “pencils down” on the water wholesaler’s sixth attempt to study the pipeline project since the 1990s. The reason this time is that Water Authority is in court with Metropolitan over what LA charges to transport almost 60 percent of San Diego’s water, but there’s hope for common ground.
“I think both parties are willing and ready to sit down and talk about a settlement,” Denham said.
A San Francisco court is expected to rule early next year on whether San Diego should be credited for water it used to buy from Metropolitan but now purchases from the Imperial Valley – though it all flows through the same straw from the Colorado River owned by Los Angeles. Denham said they’re stepping back from pursuing a parallel pipeline over hopes for either a settlement or a court win.
“I know five billion sounds like a lot of money, and it is, but when you talk about what (we’re) paying to get the water here in today’s dollars, over time there’s an economic argument that can be made (for it),” Denham said.
Consultants hired by the Water Authority to study the zombie pipeline predicted Los Angeles’ water and transportation rates would be so high in the future, San Diego could get river water through its own straw by 2048 at $1,000 less than Metropolitan would charge. Currently, though, water from Metropolitan is San Diego’s cheapest supply.
San Diego took LA to court in 2010 alleging Metropolitan tacked costs on top of that Imperial Valley deal that the Water Authority customers shouldn’t have to pay. Bad blood over the cuts San Diego experienced during the drought and subsequent fights over the Imperial Valley water deal fueled the resurfacing of the parallel pipeline – an effort to break from Metropolitan completely.
Metropolitan officials didn’t publicly view San Diego’s project as a threat. Former General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said he was “agnostic” to it when it was reintroduced two years ago. San Diego is one of Metropolitan’s biggest customers and, losing those sales would leave the rest of Los Angeles’ customers to pay for maintenance of it sprawling system, but Kightlinger said there was plenty of time to plan for the departure in the years it would take San Diego to execute the project. General Manager Adel Hagekhalil declined to comment for this story.
JB Hamby, a director on Imperial Valley Irrigation District’s board, said a member of the Water Authority board recently assured him the pipeline was dead. Hamby called for San Diego to stop its pursuits of the parallel pipeline in YouTube videos during his 2020 campaign. He sees its renewed demise as a positive sign San Diego and Los Angeles are playing nice.
“You’ve had turnover on the board, the general manager and chairpersons … There’s a reset that’s happened between the two agencies that’s very healthy and promising for the future,” Hamby said.
San Diego has long blamed Los Angeles for water rate increases. The region used to buy all its water from Los Angeles until a drought and mandatory water cuts in the 1990s encouraged the Water Authority to diversify its sources. San Diego still gets most of its water from the Colorado River through the same set of pipes connecting the region to Los Angles, but who they buy it from has changed.
A huge 2003 deal with Imperial Valley means San Diego now buys much of its river water from their eastern neighbor, and the money is used to pay farmers and support Imperial’s utility. Farmers don’t physically send the water westward through canals or pipes to make that exchange. San Diegans are instead consuming “paper water,” as it’s known in the water world, or a legal instrument used to track who is paying for and consuming water molecules circulating throughout the West.
The Water Authority’s governing board approved $1.8 million to re-study the parallel pipeline by a slim margin in November 2020.
That duplicate pipe San Diego wanted to build would sit parallel to the one Met uses now and 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.
The Water Authority studied the pipe dream at least five other times in the past. The route it was most excited about was the same one it ditched in 1996 because it was more expensive than the others at that time.
The route stretches 132 miles from the southern tip of the Salton Sea, along state Route 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.
Proponents argued it would give San Diego control over its water infrastructure costs, the primary driver of ever-rising water rates. Critics didn’t understand why San Diegans should spend billions on a project that wouldn’t bring any new water to the region.
Tom Kennedy, general manager for Rainbow Municipal Water District in northern San Diego County, which is currently undergoing its own separate fight to divorce from the Water Authority due to high water costs, argued the pipeline would make San Diego too dependent on the Colorado River.
If San Diego built its own pipeline to the Colorado River, Kennedy said, then it couldn’t benefit from other water that Metropolitan provides Southern California from rivers in Northern California.
“I think putting all your eggs in a basket on the Colorado River is a bad idea,” Kennedy said. “Why would you spend billions of dollars on one supply?”
Denham said if the Water Authority board chose to pick up the project again, it would have to re-do all the cost estimates of the project since inflation has driven up construction and labor prices since the board paid a consulting firm just under $2 million to study the idea.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified Adel Hagekhalil’s title. He is general manager.