Michael Cohen, Adel Hagekhalil, Scott Lewis, Tina Shields, Dan Denham at the University of San Diego, Politifest 2023 Credit: Vito di Stefano

If a good Politifest is marked by bringing historically-opposed parties together to answer questions before the public, then this year’s was a smashing success. 

The San Diego County Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California have traditionally bumped heads on many fronts – particularly over the cost of transporting Colorado River water to San Diego. But their new leaders quite literally bumped fists on our Politifest stage – a universal gesture of respect, approval, maybe even agreement? 

Fist bump between Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and Dan Denham, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. / Oct. 8, 2023.
Fist bump between Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and Dan Denham, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority. / Oct. 8, 2023.

“The first 10 to 15 years of my water watching career was about dealing with the fight between these two agencies,” said our CEO Scott Lewis sitting between Met’s new general manager, Adel Hagekhalil, and the Water Authority’s new general manager, Dan Denham.  

In the middle of that sentence, Hagekhalil leaned across the panel to offer a friendly fist to Denham, which he returned. Various sets of eyebrows in the audience rose. Actions spoke louder than words.  

That’s quite a change from how former Metropolitan general manager Jeff Kightlinger described the relationship back in 2015: “It’s like a bad marriage, we can’t seem to fix it.”  

That litigation over the cost of transporting Colorado River water to San Diego through Metropolitan’s infrastructure still may not be over. A San Francisco superior court judge ruled in favor of Metropolitan on three remaining points of contention back in March. The Water Authority could still appeal.  

Lewis followed up, asking what had happened since the panic of the mid-1990s which triggered the legal melee that made that fist bump even possible. 

Denham said the staff working at both agencies were probably always on the same page. 

“Broader politics I think got us sideways in some form. And of course there’s a financial component to all this. You don’t just initiate litigation to destroy reputations,” Denham said. “In hard times you got to find a way to come together. And that’s what we’ve done in the last couple of years.” 

San Diego threw its weight behind Hagekhalil during a razor thin vote to elect him as leader of Metropolitan back in 2021, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. And the chair of Metropolitan’s board gestured support for San Diego by weighing in favorably for the Water Authority during a recent fight when two small farming communities made an attempt to leave San Diego County.  

But Hagekhalil’s message at Politifest was consistently one of unity. In fact, he wore and often referred to a lapel pin that read, “We are One.” He called Metropolitan a “co-op” of 26 member water agencies during that panel.  

“We just went through six million people suffering,” Hagekhalil said in response to Lewis’ question, referring to last Spring’s drought when a portion of Los Angeles had to cut back their water use. “That opened the door for us to think how we can build future resiliency as a co-op, as Metropolitan.”  

Here you can watch the full discussion about San Diego making the biggest water deal in California history. 

Hagekhalil stuck around to join me for the next Politifest discussion: How will the states learn to share the Colorado River? Weather delayed our scheduled third guest, John Entsminger from the Southern Nevada and Las Vegas water agencies. So Hagekhalil and JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board for California and an elected Imperial Irrigation District director, were good sports about joining us impromptu for that chat.  

I’m sure glad they did because Imperial Valley and Metropolitan are two of the major players at the negotiation table dictating how the shrinking river will continue to provide past 2026. That’s when major agreements over who shoulders water cuts across the basin will expire. So the seven states and Mexico have to come up with new plans.  

If you want a good primer on how we got to this point, this panel’s for you because I did a lot of interrupting of our respected panelists, asking them to explain a lot of the water jargon I run across while reporting out this topic.  

My heartfelt thanks to all of the good people who graciously agreed to join us at Politifest 2023: Jeff Kightlinger, former general manager of the Metropolitan Water Authority and Acequia Consulting; JB Hamby, chairman of the Colorado River Board for California; Brenda Burman, Central Arizona Project; Adel Hagekhalil, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California; Tina Shields, water department manager with Imperial Irrigation District; Dan Denham, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, Michael Cohen, senior associate with the Pacific Institute, Nick Serrano, city of San Diego and vice chair of the San Diego County Water Authority; Jack Bebee, general manager of the Fallbrook Public Utility District, and my colleagues Scott Lewis and Andrea Lopez-Villafaña.  

In Other News 

  • Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that gives the State Water Resources Control Board the authority to investigate claims to water rights. Some of the oldest and largest claims are held by individual landowners, cities and agricultural irrigation districts like Imperial Valley. (Los Angeles Times) 
  • The Port of San Diego will vote on whether to censure its vice chair, commissioner Sandy Naranjo, and strip her of her title on Tuesday after an outside attorney reported on allegations that she had mistreated a port employee and refused to disclose financial information. Naranjo has hired her own attorney in response. (Voice of San Diego) 
  • New research by a scientist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography suggests sand actually doesn’t flow from north to south from Oceanside, which could have implications on big decisions Oceanside is about to make to regrow its beaches. (Union-Tribune) 
  • New air quality monitors showed higher levels of sewer gases than state standards permit in South Bay, where cross-border sewage pollution consistently wreaks havoc. (Union-Tribune) 
  • The Los Angeles-San Diego-San Luis Obispo Rail Corridor, which is consistently impacted by impacted by coastal erosion, must assess how climate change is affecting regional rail under a new bill from San Diego state senator Catherine Blakespear. (Times of San Diego) 
  • Phililp Salata, inewsource’s new environment reporter, wrote this great piece on the constant poisoning of the Sweetwater River by sewage.  

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