A woman waters plants at a nursery in 2020. / File photo by Adriana Heldiz

San Diego’s biggest water seller will sue the boundary referees that allowed two of its buyers to leave its business territory.  

After hours of deliberation in a closed meeting last week, the board of the San Diego County Water Authority voted to sue the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO. That’s because LAFCO’s board agreed to let Rainbow Municipal Water District and the Fallbrook Public Utilities District divorce from the Water Authority last month so they could buy cheaper water from Riverside County.  

The Water Authority board agreed to pursue a lawsuit by a vote of 21 to 2. Thursday’s vote was the board’s third try to garner enough support after the first two attempts were either thwarted by not having enough members to legally hold a quorum, or to offer more negotiation time between the parties.  

For Rainbow and Fallbrook, it was a signal that negotiations with the Water Authority over how mounting rate hikes crippled their farming customers had come to an end. The day after the Water Authority vote, the two water district’s boards filed paperwork to secure a November ballot among their customers and finalize the divorce. 

The Water Authority plans to argue LAFCO didn’t study certain environmental impacts before authorizing this change. Specifically, whether water buyers leaving one seller’s territory and joining another would put more pressure on fragile water supplies from melting snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains – also known as the State Water Project. It’s California’s largest water lifeline, serving more than half the state’s population as well as 750,000 acres of farmland.  

Last year, due to an extraordinary drought, the state doled out only 5 percent of the water its 29 public water suppliers were supposed to get from the State Water Project. That set a record. It triggered water restrictions for a portion of Southern California that relies solely on that northern California water.  

The Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, through which San Diego gets almost all of its water, controls the mix of resources that ultimately flow out of San Diego taps. Metropolitan generally gets half its water from the State Water Project and half from the Colorado River, depending on supplies.  

It’s not a surprise the Water Authority decided to sue. The agency outlined their legal arguments in letters to LAFCO during the years-long divorce process. LAFCO sent their own letters in response, claiming water district reorganizations of this kind are exempt from these sorts of environmental studies.  

Divided Support of Lawsuit 

San Diego County Water Authority meeting in Kearny Mesa on July 27, 2023.
San Diego County Water Authority meeting in Kearny Mesa on July 27, 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

The Water Authority board’s vote to sue was far from unanimous. Half of the 24 water districts voted in favor of it with the city of San Diego – the most powerful voting bloc among them – carrying the vote.  

Representatives from six other eligible water districts didn’t attend the meeting to cast a vote at all. That includes Valley Center’s general manager Gary Arant who’s been on a campaign to take voting power away from the city of San Diego.  

Politics around the Water Authority shake-up have been fairly partisan. Rural, conservative-leaning decision makers generally side with Fallbrook and Rainbow. Democrats – backed by powerful labor unions – generally take the side of the city of San Diego and the Water Authority. That seemed to be the case on this vote as well.  

Carlsbad voting member, city councilwoman and Democrat Teresa Acosta, voted in favor of the lawsuit, however. Escondido City Council member Consuelo Martinez also joined the “yes” vote. She’s a Democratic representative of the growing northeast San Diego County city. Her Republican counterpart on the council, the Republican Mayor Dane White, serves on the LAFCO commission and voted in favor of letting Rainbow and Fallbrook leave the Water Authority.  

Only two water districts registered “no” votes, against the lawsuit: Lindsey Leahy, water utilities director for the city of Oceanside and Carlsbad’s other voting member, Vicki Quiram, general manager of Carlsbad Public Works and a new board member. 

Fallbrook and Rainbow Rush to Vote  

Under existing law, all Fallbrook and Rainbow have yet to do to leave the Water Authority is get approval from voters in their service area. The two water district boards held special meetings on Friday to certify holding that election this November.  

They’re both trying to beat a proposed bill that’s being rushed through the state Legislature that would considerably stall their departure – and their quest for cheaper water from another seller. Assemblywoman Tasha Boerner, a Democrat from Encinitas, is running that bill with the backing of San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria’s administration.  

“The number one thing we can do to combat this crazy political gamesmanship they’re playing with AB 399 is (hold this vote) as quick as possible so they can’t go back and nullify the election,” said Tom Kennedy, general manager at Rainbow Municipal Water District.  

Backers of the bill maintain they’re trying to protect the rest of the ratepayers in the county from rate increases as a fallout to Rainbow and Fallbrook’s departure.  

Correction: This story has been updated to correct that the Water Authority board voted 21 to 2 vote to pursue a lawsuit.

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  1. Can’t care about this until drug addicts are no longer pooping in public near my home. Write about how city services are 80% spent on drug addicts who have never paid taxes here instead of nice things for all of us.

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