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

I got some pushback recently on the idea that legislation which could stall the breakup of the San Diego County Water Authority may have trouble getting through. 

But it’s hardly a guaranteed success for the city of San Diego and its sponsor, Democrat Tasha Boerner from Encinitas. It needs a two-thirds vote from the state Legislature and there’s evidence that – despite strong support from labor unions – Democrats may not have all the votes they need.  

It would also change the fundamental relationship between the Water Authority and its members. Jack Bebee, head of defecting Fallbrook Public Utilities District, told Voice before that if the whole county had to vote on something like this, his agency would never have joined the Water Authority in the first place.  

AB 399 would make it harder for two smaller water districts to separate from the Water Authority and buy cheaper water outside the county. And the bill would also require everyone in the county to vote on the breakup of a countywide agency. Not only could its passage potentially undo this singular water divorce, but it could very likely prevent anyone else from leaving the Water Authority in the future.  

It makes sense why the bill promoters are fighting this divorce so hard. They’ve got a lot riding on this.  

The Water Authority has at least $2 billion in debt to pay-off for building relatively drought-proof water supplies. If any of their 24 water districts bail on that bill, it shifts costs to those that remain. It also shifts voting power on building big water projects in Southern California. And the process put the Water Authority’s costs and past decisions on trial at the Local Agency Formation Commission or LAFCO.  

But the reason I keep writing about AB 399 is because it continues to show up in this debate over divorce.  

Last Thursday, Mel Katz, the chair of the Water Authority board, asked the San Diego County Registrar of Voters to stall a special election of customers in Rainbow Municipal Water District and Fallbrook Public Utilities District.  

Rainbow and Fallbrook rushed in their election paperwork to hold a Nov. 7 vote among their customers the day after 15 of Water Authority’s 24 districts voted to sue LAFCO over the divorce. 

“These elections are premature,” Katz wrote to Cynthia Paes, the registrar of voters.  

Why? Katz gave a list of reasons including AB 399. If it passes, there’d be multiple elections (one in Rainbow, in Fallbrook and in the county) over the same issue resulting in “voter confusion and misuse of public resources.” 

Paes wrote back a day later saying the Registrar has no other role in this other than to hold elections that follow the rules under state elections law.   

“Please also remember that the Registrar is simply carrying on an election. Your impending lawsuit against LAFCO, or actions against the districts, may determine what significance, if any, the election will have,” Paes said. 

In other words, we’re working with the laws on the books today. Maybe you can get the outcome you want by another means, aka suing the agency that allowed this process to proceed in the first place.  

Attorneys representing Rainbow and Fallbrook sent their own letter in an attempt to undo all the Water Authority’s points, including whether AB 399 has any impact on their ability to hold a special election. 

“It is not the law now, was not the law when,” we started this process back in 2020, the attorneys wrote.  

AB 399 didn’t make it to the Senate Appropriations Committee calendar Monday. Legislative staff told me it’ll be heard on Aug. 28. If this countywide vote requirement could cost the state more than $50,000 (which it likely would) the bill would be put in what’s known as a “suspense file” where it joins hundreds of other bills held-up due to their significant cost. Then the committee has one giant vote on all of those bills currently set for Sept. 1.  

Bills that make it out are sent to the Senate floor for debate. Those that are held back don’t move forward.  

Suspense, indeed.  

In Other News  

  • Hurricane Hilary became a bit of a nothing-burger tropical storm for San Diego once it made landfall. But the amount of rain brought shattered records for the wettest day in August all over the place. (NWS San Diego) 
  • The onslaught of the storm raised a question in the newsroom: Will solar panels continue providing power to homes and businesses even during a power outage? I explored that in a short piece. Hint: Nope. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • Our photographer, Ariana Drehsler, toiled in the deluge to bring you a new photo essay exploring how San Diegans from the border, the coast and the parking lots dealt with all that rain and wind. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • Our Jakob McWhinney brings you some mushie news. UC San Diego researchers are studying whether psilocybin affects phantom limb pain – and much more. (Voice of San Diego)  
  • I regret to inform you that there are thousands of black tarantulas crawling out of burrows and tracking down their female counterparts to do the deed. Axios had a good round-up of that coverage. (Axios San Diego) 
  • Join your Voice of San Diego friends for a live podcast recording and beer at Original 40 Brewing Company on Sept. 6 starting at 5:30 p.m. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • David Victor, a researcher at the UCSD and co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative there, steps down as chair of a community panel overseeing the decommissioning of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. (Union-Tribune) 
  • In more stepping-down news, a top executive at Sempra, a San Diego-based energy company, will leave his post to head a major lobbying group for electric utilities. Dan Brouillette also served as secretary of the Department of Energy during the Trump Administration. (Union-Tribune) 
  • The state fined San Diego Community Power $1 million after failing to secure enough backup energy resources. I wrote about the complicated world of resource adequacy back in 2020 and why many community choice aggregators have trouble securing those resources. (Union-Tribune and Voice of San Diego) 

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