Some of the region’s smaller, rural water buyers are fed up with how the city of San Diego’s been throwing its weight around recently and they see an opportunity to change things as the city scurries to stop two other agencies from defecting.
The city is pushing a bill in the state Legislature that would undo an attempt by two small rural farming communities to divorce from the San Diego County Water Authority. That upset a growing list of smaller and rural water districts that already have less voting power than San Diego in local water decisions.
The bill needs unwavering support from Democrats to pass. There’s already evidence they may not have the votes.
So, some of these water districts from more conservative parts of the region want to make a deal with the bill’s author, Assemblymember Tasha Boerner, a Democrat from Encinitas: We’ll support your bill, if you give us more voting power over the Water Authority.
Boerner’s bill would amend the County Water Authority Act, which created the San Diego County Water Authority in 1944 in response to the U.S. Navy’s growing presence there. The bill would require voters across San Diego approve any agency’s bid to leave. Since you’ve cracked that act open, the rural water districts say, let’s adjust how votes are weighted at the Water Authority, too.
Right now, it works like this: The biggest water buyers (aka the biggest cities) get the most votes or most appointed directors to the Water Authority’s 36-member board. The city of San Diego gets 10 board members, representing nearly 40 percent of the vote, according to the County Water Authority Act.
No other water district comes close to that. The most voting weight by percentage held by any one is Otay Water District at about 6 percent.
The Water Authority voting rules say decisions need a 55 percent majority vote to pass when San Diego is also voting. So that means, as long as San Diego joins forces with a few other water districts, they control the Water Authority.
A good example is when the Water Authority wanted to build a $5 billion parallel pipeline to the Colorado River back in September of 2020. Even though the project wouldn’t bring one new drop of water to the region, the region would have control over its main drinking water source – instead of paying the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to transport it.
Twenty of the agency’s 36 directors said no to the pipeline, and 14 said yes including “the city 10” – how local water nerds refer to the city of San Diego.
At the time, Gary Arant, general manager of Valley Center Municipal Water District, argued Water Authority votes should work like Congress – a decision should pass two houses, one weighted by population or property values and another by an equal number of votes per water district.
Arant, with approval from his own board, sent a letter to Boerner with a similar proposal. Some of his board members were hesitant in supporting the bill at all.
“That’s what we’re saying your leverage is,” Arant said in response. “We’ll go along with the legislation if you change the voting structure.”
Kim Thorner, general manager of Olivenhain Municipal Water District which serves portions of coastal cities including Encinitas, wrote her own letter to Boerner on July 26 asking the same. James Hickle, president of the Ramona Municipal Water District board, opposed the bill outright in a July 12 letter.
“I urge you to send a strong message to big cities and large agencies who want to dictate what is good for the smaller communities and cities, then turn around and do what is best for themselves without regard for others,” Hickle wrote.