Politifest 2019 / Photo by Vito Di Stefano

I moved to San Diego more than 20 years ago as a newlywed. I followed my wife who was then an officer in the Navy and I gave up a couple job opportunities to make it. I landed a job as a journalist with the Daily Transcript paying $11 an hour to cover water and housing.

I felt pretty down. Even then, $11 an hour was not great, and I had to wear a tie. Water and housing seemed like awful beats.

I was quite wrong. Housing was in the early stages of what became a major bubble and then a financial crisis. Learning about how it all worked became invaluable to me.

I dove into the history of California and water and became obsessed. I saw a canal for the first time and the massive gushers of water pumping out of Lake Havasu mesmerized me as I realized how many millions of people that one rush of water was serving.

The best part, though, was the San Diego County Water Authority was in the final months of negotiating what would become the biggest deal in California history: the Quantification Settlement Agreement. Almost exactly 20 years ago the Water Authority, Metropolitan Water District, Imperial Irrigation District (or IID) and the Coachella Valley Water District all agreed to the enormously complex settlement.

In short, California would for the first time, abide by the 4.4 million acres of water to which the state is entitled from the Colorado River. It had been taking much more. At the same time, Imperial Irrigation District, which took the bulk of the water saved for California, would also cap its take.

The biggest part, though, was the agreement IID and the Water Authority struck to let San Diego purchase much of that allocation.

Now, 20 years later, California still takes less than it did from the Colorado River. IID takes less than it did and yet the population and enterprise in California has only soared.

It’s an extraordinary story of water use, engineering, negotiation and efficiency. But it’s not all a win. Every drop conserved or re-directed to San Diego now no longer helps fill the Salton Sea. That weird lake, which once was a tourist destination and became a refuge for wildlife and innumerable bugs, is now vastly smaller than it was. And every inch of dirt that dries up becomes a toxic dust that threatens to make Imperial County’s air much worse than it already is.

View of the Salton Sea from the Salton Sea Visitor Center in Mecca, Calif on Nov. 15, 2022.
View of the Salton Sea from the Salton Sea Visitor Center in Mecca, Calif on Nov. 15, 2022. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

Why I am telling you this: Because my career has come full circle. We’re now one week from Politifest 2023, which will be all about water and housing, two of California’s biggest challenges.

Next Saturday, Oct. 7 at University of San Diego I will moderate a panel about the 20th anniversary of the Quantification Settlement Agreement with the Adel Hagekhalil, general manager and CEO, Metropolitan Water District, Dan Denham, general manager, San Diego County Water Authority, Tina Shields, water department manager, Imperial Irrigation District and Michael Cohen, senior associate, Pacific Institute, who will be the voice of the Salton Sea.

Right after that, officials from Arizona, Nevada and California will talk about how to make a similar arrangement but between the states. Twenty years ago, California water leaders thought the big agreement would be all they needed to do but, as water officials say “the hydrology didn’t cooperate.” That’s a water nerd’s way of saying that the climate is changing and the Colorado River can’t be counted on to deliver anywhere near the water western states have become accustomed to taking. Drought, hidden by years like last year, will be reality well into the future. It’s time to make some big deals.

I don’t have any proof for this claim but this has to be the biggest gathering of high-level water officials for an event like this – not a water conference, not a hearing, simply a forum to help the public understand the infrastructure and arrangements that make civilization here possible.

And about that divorce: One low-key awesome panel for the real water nerds is the “Cost of Water Smackdown” between Nick Serrano, vice chair of San Diego County Water Authority board and Jack Bebee, general manager, Fallbrook Public Utilities District. Bebee’s agency is about the leave the Water Authority because of the high cost of water (in part because of the Quantification Settlement Agreement). That itself will increase water rates a bit. Serrano has become one of the most quotable figures on the other side. This will certainly be colorful.

More highlights: This is the Politics Report, after all, and you wouldn’t be reading this if you weren’t the exact audience for things like the debate between Monica Montgomery Steppe and Amy Reichert, who are running for county supervisor. NBC’s Priya Sridhar is moderating that.

Our old friend LD: Liam Dillon has transformed himself into the premiere investigative reporter on housing in California at the Los Angeles Times and he’s coming back to Politifest. We have arranged a special live podcast conversation between him and Attorney General Rob Bonta. The whole day is about housing and water and how far Bonta is willing to go to enforce the state’s laws about cities meeting housing targets is the issue of the moment. But Liam will take the conversation lots of places, I’m sure.

After a half hour, the rest of the podcast crew will join them on stage and involve the audience. Play a game and you can ask a question…

We have panels about homelessness, “Is the Rent Too Damn High?” SB 10 and the push to allow more density in areas cities tried to set aside for single-family homes.

I could go on and on but nobody around puts together this kind of gathering where those of you who care about public affairs can just swim in it for a day.

Please come.

Learn more and register here.

Maybe still register and pay even if you can’t make it. We’ll spend weeks digesting all the interesting things said and I bet you, of all people, want this sort of thing to continue.

Twenty years later, I’m still obsessed with housing and water. But I don’t have to wear ties anymore.

If you have any feedback or ideas for the Politics Report, send them to scott.lewis@voiceofsandiego.org.  

Scott Lewis oversees Voice of San Diego’s operations, website and daily functions as Editor in Chief. He also writes about local politics, where he frequently...

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  1. My 1st job upon graduating from SDSU in 1982 was cleaning toilets at the old Home Fed on East Mission Bay Drive. I would still clean toilets at 70 years old. In fact, that is why I am a candidate for San Diego Mayor, to clean all the toilets at City Hall.

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