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California and the West

San Diego to Fight Old L.A. Water Claim

Litigation: A 1950s regulation would allow Los Angeles to increase its MWD use in a drought.


SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County water board voted Thursday to file a lawsuit to overturn a half-century-old regulation that gives Los Angeles the right, during a drought, to deprive San Diego County of more than half of its water supply.

After griping about the issue since 1951, the San Diego County agency has decided that it cannot plan its future with such uncertainty about water.

One factor pushing the water board into litigation was the way the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and Mayor Richard Riordan have acted during the electricity deregulation crisis.

"After seeing what they've done with electricity, the last thing we want is to see how they'd react during a water shortage," said Bernie Rhinerson, vice chairman of the San Diego County Water Authority.

Although DWP has sold surplus electricity at cost during the state's most recent electricity crisis, over the longer term this year it has reaped a windfall profit. And Riordan has said that his first priority during the crisis is to safeguard the financial interests of Los Angeles.

"Apply that thinking to water and it means that during a drought, Los Angeles will be drinking water paid for by San Diego," said Christine Frahm, former San Diego water board member and now its legal and policy advisor.

Because it has virtually no ground water, San Diego County depends on water purchased from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which gets water from the Colorado River and Northern California. At issue is that, under the policies that govern MWD, the Los Angeles is guaranteed a claim to 24% of the water sold by the mega-agency.

Because it also gets water from Owens Valley and other sources, Los Angeles buys only 14% of MWD's water. San Diego County, by comparison, is guaranteed 14% of the water but has been buying 28%.

During times of drought, like that which struck California from 1986 to 1992, Los Angeles retains the right to increase its purchases from MWD.

To get that water, the mega-agency would reduce sales to other customers, including San Diego County, its biggest and unhappiest customer.

The so-called "preferential rights" system reflects that Los Angeles was among the local agencies that founded MWD in the 1920s and helped build the Colorado Aqueduct. San Diego County, politically and socially aloof from Southern California, joined MWD only when forced to by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II.

As MWD's biggest customer, the San Diego County water board has paid a larger portion of the multibillion-dollar bill for expansion of MWD's storage and delivery system in recent decades than any other MWD member, including Los Angeles. What galls San Diegans is that, during drought, that would not be taken into account.

"This cries out to be redressed," said Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County authority.

In an attempt to head off rancorous litigation, MWD General Manager Ron Gastelum proposed declaring a permanent water emergency in Southern California, thus invoking a state law that appears to trump the preferential rights system.

His suggestion seems to have backfired. San Diego County water board members said such a declaration would stifle growth and chase away businesses seeking to relocate in the county.

Bonny Herman, a Riordan appointee to the MWD board, said litigation by the San Diego County water board is unnecessary but not surprising, given the county's relationship with other MWD members.

"I think they should work on storage and conservation efforts and stop worrying about things," Herman said. "We're not going to let them die of thirst."

She added that the San Diego County agency "would perhaps find more cooperation at the bargaining table if they were more of a team-spirited player."

Commenting on the planned lawsuit, water expert Steve Erie, political science professor at UC San Diego, said: "This is felony dumb. It hurts us [San Diego] in further dealing with L.A. over issues like power and further isolates San Diego."

San Diego County has been sharply at odds with Los Angeles and the MWD board over numerous issues, most prominently San Diego's bid to buy water from the water-rich Imperial Irrigation District.

The San Diego County agency's decision to sue MWD over the rights issue comes after a failed attempt at mediation between San Diego and Los Angeles by former Rep. Vic Fazio, the latest in a half-dozen attempts to resolve the issue.

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