Henry Mathis, an alternate member of the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission, looks on as the public addresses a vote deciding whether two small water districts can divorce the San Diego County Water Authority on June 5, 2023. / MacKenzie Elmer
Members of the San Diego Local Agency Formation Commission at a meeting on June 5, 2023. / MacKenzie Elmer

What began as a spat between water districts divorcing each other over San Diego’s rising cost of water is now more like a pro-wrestling confrontation once state lawmakers, Los Angeles power brokers and San Diego’s mayor stepped into the ring.  

But instead of glistening men in tights breaking chairs over each other, the characters are suit-and-tie-wearing politicians exchanging allegations in strongly worded letters and press conferences.  

Their battle royale was an attempt to sway a panel of eight mostly conservative or rural representatives who decide whether two San Diego water districts can buy water from a different county. 

The Rainbow Municipal Water District and the Fallbrook Public Utilities District want a divorce from the San Diego County Water Authority so they can buy cheaper water instead from the Eastern Municipal Water District in Riverside County. The two districts pay some of the highest water rates of the 24 communities that buy from the Water Authority.  

So, they filed their divorce papers with the eight-member Local Agency Formation Commission in 2019. That was the first big punch thrown in this fight.  

The general managers of the defecting water districts, Tom Kennedy and Jack Bebee, have been some of the Water Authority’s biggest critics. Yet the Water Authority pulled out all the stops to keep them from leaving.  

The Water Authority joined forces with the city of San Diego, its biggest customer but not always its biggest ally, to wage an offensive against the divorce attempt. The two tapped sympathizers from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. And engaged Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner to try and stop it with a new state law.  

Last week, the situation turned into an all-out political brawl. Water Authority leaders stood with San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria, Supervisor Nora Vargas and others at a press conference, alleging Rainbow and Fallbrook were condemning the rest of San Diego’s ratepayers to an extra $200 million in costs by leaving.  

Then LAFCO’s staff disputes that figure and tweeted a Ron Burgundy meme, @’ing the Water Authority to “bring your calculators.” They argue the price tag is more like $66 million minus some infrastructure the Water Authority never built for those communities.  

The day of the final vote, a battery of local TV news cameras consumed presentations by warring numbers nerds. The Water Authority’s staff accused LAFCO’s staff of using bad math to represent future water costs. LAFCO staff said if North County districts had to pay more than $24 million to leave the Water Authority, it wouldn’t be worth it. 

Despite LAFCO’s years studying the issue and a third-party economist studying it more and all the mudslinging just before the final vote – all the cost estimates associated with this water divorce are just that: Estimates. 

The Water Authority can’t exactly say how much the departure of two of its smallest water districts will cost ratepayers. Just like Rainbow and Fallbrook can’t promise how much their farmers will save by joining Riverside County.  

A few things are clear though. One is that a lot of powerful people have been trying to influence this decision that only LAFCO can make – and even attempting to change state law so that fact is no longer the case. The other is that San Diego is still sitting on a lot of debt for building the kind of drought resiliency the region experienced these past few summers.  

Someone is going to have to pay for it. 

The biggest twist in this water divorce battle is that for the first time, the Water Authority was quasi-on trial for its record-shattering rates. Picking such a public fight with two of its smallest members drew some unwelcome eyes at the Water Authority’s state of affairs. Farmers and small-towners, shaken from the woodwork, pleaded with LAFCO for protection from the “big city bullies.”  

As the region’s sole water wholesaler, the Water Authority only needs a vote of its 24 member agencies (a majority held by the city of San Diego) to raise prices. The general public doesn’t directly have a say. 

In response, LAFCO commissioners also tried to vote to begin an audit, called a municipal service review, of the Water Authority. (LAFCO’s lawyers said they’d have to wait to vote on that at a separate meeting.)  Such an audit of the Water Authority has never been done before.  

The divorce isn’t final until Rainbow and Fallbrook residents vote to approve it as well. That could be stalled if the Water Authority takes legal action against LAFCO’s decision. There’s evidence they’re gearing up to do just that.  

The games have just begun.  

Around Your Local Environment 

  • I’ll be co-hosting an environment and climate-focused forum with KPBS’ Erik Anderson between candidates vying to fill the county supervisor seat left vacant by Nathan Fletcher’s departure on July 14 in Hillcrest. Mail voting begins the week of July 15 and in-person voting begins Aug. 5.  
  • Expect extreme heat in San Diego County’s deserts and mountains this week.  
  • Our Tigist Layne reported that Encinitas stopped pursuing a building electrification mandate as a similar ordinance in the city of Berkeley is locked up in litigation. The city of Carlsbad took similar steps last month. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • A toxic algal bloom of Southern California shores sickened, confused and sometimes killed many sea lions and dolphins in the last week. Scientists linked reports of sea creatures biting swimmers to the dizzying effects of high concentrations of neurotoxins emitted from such blooms. The warm waters offshore from El Niño that California is experiencing can cause more severe blooms. (KPBS and Smithsonian Magazine) 
  • San Diego’s democratic Congressional reps asked for money in the nation’s military spending bill to fix a sewage treatment plant at the border that few people knew was so broken.  
  • The city of San Diego is building eight microgrid projects on top of city buildings to cut energy costs and greenhouse gas emissions. (Union-Tribune) 
  • In more rooftop solar news, the California Public Utilities Commission said it won’t revisit a controversial decision that cut returns solar customers get for excess energy sold back to the grid. (Union-Tribune) 
  • A quarter of San Diego’s public power companies, which offer slightly cheaper rates than SDG&E, are still falling behind on utility bills. (Union-Tribune) 

Join the Conversation


  1. I think the CWA and LAFCO could have ducked this bullet by lowering the water rates for farmers and spreading the loss throughout its customer base. That’s called business.

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