Eleven years ago, when the San Diego County Water Authority was going through the final stages of approving what had, by that time, become a decade-long odyssey to create the first desalination plant on the West Coast, the agency made a prediction.
Yes, the potable water the plant created from the ocean would be expensive. Yes, it would take a lot of energy. But the agency asked us to compare that to the water we imported from Northern California and the Colorado River, via the Metropolitan Water District. Officials said in countless hearings and documents that, within 20 years, that imported water was going to be more expensive. We would look brilliant having made this investment.
Now, those projections look terrible. The cost of desalinated water soared, just one of the many factors that pushed the cost of water in San Diego higher than almost anywhere else in the country. At the same time, the cost of water from Met climbed but nowhere near the pace. Nobody draws up projections now where the two lines – the cost of desalinated water and the cost of Met water — cross at any time in the foreseeable future. They won’t.
What happened? The Water Authority didn’t realize San Diego Gas & Electric was also on a building spree and would also raise its rates to some of the highest in the nation. Pushing 50-million gallons a day of water through reverse-osmosis filters to make it something we can drink and pour on plants takes a lot of electricity.
Now, San Diego’s water is more than $400 more per acre foot than Met’s.
“The projections were wrong. There’s no denying that,” said Dan Denham, the new acting general manager of the Water Authority. “Part of what the Water Authority needs to be better at is being more transparent about when we’re wrong about some things. We tried to predict the cost and we were wrong.”
But, Denham told me, the projections, the high costs, they’re all part of a largely successful three-decade-long push to make San Diego water independent, to shelter it from drought and cutbacks it can’t control and to thrive when the rest of the west dries. It was a project he said even the two water agencies that are now leaving the Water Authority largely supported.
To pull it off, desalination was just the biggest, most interesting investment they made. But it was by far not the only investment. The Water Authority is now about to mark the 20th anniversary of the Quantification Settlement Agreement, the historic deal between all the huge major Southern California water agencies that essentially, for the first time, quantified just how much water the Imperial Irrigation District would use and send the rest to San Diego.
It was a huge deal and a very expensive one. It required the Water Authority to line the All American Canal with concrete to keep some of the water from leaking into Mexico. It required other, large expenditures and now it, too, is one of the major drivers of the cost of San Diego water. It was a historic deal even the Fallbrook Public Utility District and Rainbow Municipal Water District supported. All the districts that make up the Water Authority’s governing board supported that vote.
But now Fallbrook and Rainbow want out.
The Incredible Separation
County Supervisor Jim Desmond didn’t return my calls. I wanted to know why it was so important for him, as the chair of the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, to approve Fallbrook and Rainbow’s application to leave the Water Authority and instead join the Eastern District in the Riverside area.
Desmond’s board delayed the decision but then the city of San Diego and the Water Authority, so concerned about the divorce, got Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner to push a bill that would require voters across the entire county approve the decision, a vote that would almost certainly fail.
Desmond and Fallbrook and Rainbow needed five votes but one of the members, Jo MacKenzie, seemed to not support it. She had let them know she couldn’t attend a meeting in July. Seeing the legislation progress, Desmond moved the vote to July. MacKenzie’s alternate supported it and Fallbrook and Rainbow got the five votes they needed. The divorce was done.
It was hardball and it worked.
At least, unless the state successfully intervenes. The city of San Diego pulled every lever it has in Sacramento. The Chamber of Commerce, the labor unions, all the big shots they could find spoke in favor of legislation to force a countywide vote and halt the divorce. Fallbrook, though, got Big Avocado to weigh in.
The vote needs two-thirds support in both the state Senate and Assembly. And it seemed to be breaking down as a Republican vs. Democrats issue and, with a super-majority of support among Democrats, that would be fine. But last week, one Democrat balked and that’s not a good sign.
Again, though, these are big fights in big places. Why so intense?
Desmond didn’t want to talk. Jack Bebee, the general manager at Fallbrook was up for talking.
Bebee’s district, unlike Rainbow, did oppose desalination and he says his district will never see the benefit of it. Fallbrook has a direct connection to Met’s infrastructure already. All that will change, as he puts it, is he’ll start getting an invoice from Met and it will be a lot cheaper.
“We’ve been paying for infrastructure we don’t need or use,” he said.
To him, the urgency is simple. “Fallbrook is Fallbrook because of avocados. If the cost of water goes up too much, it essentially creates land that has no value,” he said.
They want out.
But how about the other side? Why is the city of San Diego and the Water Authority so intense about stopping this separation that they must take it all the way to Sacramento and demand an extraordinary act of the Legislature?
They have their stated reasons: When Rainbow and Fallbrook leave, the rest of us will pay more for water to pay off the bills we took on to build all the things we built and to pay off all the deals we made. They also point out that San Diego has finally become a player at the board of Met, where with the slimmest of margins they were able to get their preferred chairman in place at Met and their preferred general manager.
But that seemed low energy to me. Something else is going on. Why are they all so fired up?
The Real Reason
Water is different than other collective efforts we undertake. We don’t let voters decide on water rate increases like we do tax increases because somewhere deep down we know it’s too important. You can let roads and libraries deteriorate. The police will always complain but they still show up. If taxes don’t go up, the rot may come but it will come slowly.
If water stopped flowing, though, everything is over. There’s no Qualcomm or UC San Diego. There’s no Ocean Beach or Chula Vista. There’s nothing. San Diego had a tiny straw tapped into far away sources of fresh water. When the city’s big shots realized how easily Los Angeles could pinch it, they panicked.
The Water Authority turned into a machine driven by people who really believed they were on a historic mission to preserve the region as a functioning civilization. They took on massive legal challenges to secure their rights to water. They demanded member agencies get on board with major investments. They made reservoirs deeper, canals more efficient and they became the first agency in California to turn saltwater to freshwater.
Twenty years ago, when the vote to finalize the great deal between all the massive Southern California water agencies came, a couple old farmers opposed. By the end of the day, staff had gotten them to change their vote so it would be unanimous.
All for one, one for all.
Fallbrook and Rainbow leaving could mean this period of expansion, innovation, investment and independence is coming to an end.
“If agencies are able to leave, what’s going to compel people to make further investments in water? Who makes those investments if you know another agency making the decision can all of a sudden leave? If you vote on something, you’re in it and you have to stick around and pay for it,” Denham said.
It means that future plans, like massive pipelines or wastewater re-use or more stormwater capture, are in jeopardy. It also means the contractors and workers who want those jobs don’t get them.
The great separation battle in San Diego water is interesting for all the normal reasons, the impact on ratepayers, the potential change to power. But what’s really interesting is to witness this moment: Is the Water Authority’s massive spending simply being checked, for the first time? Is it hitting its limit of what it can ask for from all of San Diego’s various water users from farmers in Fallbrook to someone in a one-bedroom in Hillcrest?
Or is its historic endeavor, its march to independence and its ability to not only preserve San Diego from drought but maybe even supply California and the west with water coming to an end? Will it march forward and do more with the help of the Legislature or is this it?
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