In their efforts to break away from the San Diego County Water Authority, two small farming communities have run into a powerful and unexpected foe: The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
At least, they ran into the man who chairs Metropolitan’s board: Adán Ortega Jr., a water policy consultant and former lobbyist elected in October to lead at Met.
On Monday the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, was set to cast a final vote over whether the water districts of Rainbow and Fallbrook could leave San Diego County Water Authority for Eastern Municipal Water District.
Then the chair of the largest water agency in the country – one that has long been at odds with its San Diego partner – threw the whole discussion into disarray.
“I must assert our board’s prerogative to approve any service change,” Ortega wrote. “Such matters may impact not only the finance, long term planning and water supply issues, but the balance of our weighted voting system and thus our governance.”
It worked. The decision was delayed. Ortega’s letter was enough to sway Commissioner Jo MacKenzie against making a final decision on the water divorce. She seconded a motion to delay a decision until Aug. 7, which passed 5 to 3.
“Met said that they need permission from Met,” MacKenzie said. “This is something that popped up. We need to address it.”
If LAFCO OK’d Rainbow and Fallbrook’s departure from the San Diego County Water Authority, but then Met disapproves, “who wins that argument,” MacKenzie said.
But Metropolitan has already weighed-in on that question before, twice. LAFCO’s general counsel, Holly Whatley, told commissioners that Met’s former general manager, Jeff Kightlinger, settled the matter in letters to LAFCO in 2019 and 2020. What Kightlinger basically said was, because all the warring parties are already within Met’s service area, everyone can do as they please – and this issue doesn’t require any action by Met’s board.
It’s long been accepted during this three-year divorce battle that LAFCO – endowed by the state Legislature to control boundaries of cities and special districts – was the place for the Water Authority’s future to be decided. Now in the 11th hour, major players in California’s world of water politics are trying to disrupt it.
Ortega’s surprise letter is so far the second last-minute effort to delay or scuttle Fallbrook and Rainbow’s divorce. A state lawmaker introduced a bill that, if passed, could dictate that everyone in San Diego County get a chance to vote on the departure of Rainbow and Fallbrook. The city of San Diego and its mayor clearly support the legislation. It’s plausible Ortega’s involvement is also the result of heavy lobbying from San Diego. Ortega won his seat in a controversial vote with unanimous support from San Diego’s Metropolitan representatives and has long been seen as an ally.
Ortega is acting alone from the board in his pursuit of this legal question over Met’s authority in this San Diego water debate.
“I’m trying to protect the prerogative of the board to have these policy discussions in a way that is orderly and in the context of our long term planning,” Ortega said.
If Fallbrook and Rainbow leave San Diego for Eastern, that reduces San Diego’s voting power at Metropolitan – by 0.3 percent – but enough, Ortega said, that it could matter in very close votes like the recent election of Metropolitan’s new general manager.
“I think our code allows member agencies to negotiate their own boundary changes,” Ortega said. “What will happen here is now you have an outside entity exploring this area of law and creating precedent.”
Metropolitan’s attorneys disagree with their board chair.
“I confirmed with our legal counsel that the proposed action would not change Metropolitan’s service area boundaries, so there is no requirement for the Metropolitan board to take action,” wrote Rebecca Kimitch, a Met spokeswoman, in an email Tuesday.