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What Does San Diego Really Want From the MWD?

February 25, 2001|Steven P. Erie | Steven P. Erie is director of UC San Diego's urban studies and planning program. He is researching "DWP: The Politics of Water and Power in 20th Century Los Angeles."

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County Water Authority's recent decision to sue the Metropolitan Water District and Los Angeles over preferential rights to water during droughts seems understandable. A summer water shortage looms, and new predictions spawned by global warming may leave California with serious water problems over the next 50 years. The 1928 allocation formula, based on property taxes rather than water sales, gives Los Angeles the right to 23% of the agency's water during scarcity. San Diego County gets 14%, even though it's MWD's largest customer.

Yet, given the unenforceability of the current water-rights formula, as well as the availabilty of workable alternatives, San Diego's lawsuit is but another quixotic action in its six-year all-but-declared war against the MWD. By a host of actions, San Diego's water agency is becoming the pariah of the Southern California water community and a liability to San Diego's newly elected mayor and city council.

The lawsuit over "paper" rights is simply unnecessary. Nearly all legal experts believe preferential rights are unenforceable under the State Water Code. MWD policy, going back to the 1952 Laguna Declaration, pledges adequate supplies to meet member agencies' growing needs. While a leading San Diego water official claims that preferential rights were invoked during the last drought, the MWD has never done so. For its part, Los Angeles always has supported a "share the pain equally" approach during shortages. Even under the current formula, San Diego's entitlement is growing while L.A.'s is shrinking. By 2015, when the recently signed Colorado River agreement augmenting California's water supply lapses, San Diego can claim 20% of MWD's deliveries, compared with L.A.'s 18%.

Rather than sue, San Diego could bargain. While it claims Los Angeles has walked out of previous discussions, L.A. has tried several times to resolve this matter, and San Diego has not reciprocated. L.A. has offered to revise the allocation formula to include all capital contributions, adjusted for inflation. Under this plan, San Diego's paper rights would grow, and L.A.'s substantial historical investment in the MWD would be recognized.

Alternatively, San Diego has demanded take-or-pay water-delivery contracts. Heavily dependent upon imported water, San Diego contends this would ensure that its future needs are met. Yet, when the MWD recently offered such contracts, San Diego water officials reversed course and opposed them. Today, all MWD members except San Diego have signed the framework for these contracts.

San Diego's inconsistencies raise a question: What does it really want from the MWD? The water authority pioneered markets with its landmark transfer agreement with the Imperial Valley. Now, it opposes transfer agreements that would improve the region's water supply. The Cadiz project, for example, would allow the MWD to store surplus Colorado River water in Cadiz's Mojave aquifer in wet years for extraction during dry ones. While there are concerns about the project's effectiveness and environmental impact, they appear to be reasonable risks, comparable to those associated with the Imperial Valley transfer. Yet, San Diego is critical of the plan.

Furthermore, San Diego has long sought a blend that includes more high-quality State Project water. Most San Diego imports are high-salinity Colorado River water because of how the water is shipped. In response, the MWD is building the Inland Feeder pipeline that will connect the state system to distant agencies like San Diego's. While this is the only realistic way to secure a better blend, San Diego has fought the Inland Feeder for years, apparently looking to sue the MWD and halt project construction.

What does San Diego hope to gain by its actions? San Diego County Water Authority officials claim they are simply seeking a reliable supply for their region, while protecting their ratepayers from needless and wasteful MWD expenses. Their critics contend that San Diego may be trying to sabotage the MWD, or at least embarrass its current leaders. An ineffective MWD would encourage deregulation--now a dirty word--and could turn the wholesaler into a mere set of pipes for private water transfers.

Another theory is that, much as estranged couples escalate hostilities to trigger a divorce, San Diego is building a case for separation from the MWD. Independence long has been a rallying cry for some directors at the water authority. Thus, planning has begun on a new binational aqueduct linked to the Colorado River that would bring water to Tijuana, as well as San Diego's Imperial Valley. Fearful that San Diego will permanently take its water, the Imperial Irrigation District board voted unanimously to oppose a new Colorado River aqueduct. And other Western states have expressed concern about a new straw in the river.

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