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San Diego Aims to Cut Reliance on L.A. Water

June 25, 2004|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — The San Diego County water board voted Thursday to spend nearly $2 billion in the next 15 years in hopes of achieving what has been a civic goal here since World War II: breaking the region's near-total dependence on the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Beyond just the historic antipathy San Diego feels toward Los Angeles, another factor motivating the normally pinch-penny San Diegans to go heavily into debt is the agency's failure to get the courts to overturn a policy that would allow Metropolitan to cut San Diego's water supply by an estimated 50% during drought.

For the San Diego County Water Authority, which buys about 85% of its water from Metropolitan, such a cut could be ruinous, local officials argue.

But a state appeals court in the spring turned down San Diego's challenge to Metropolitan's "preferential rights" formula that would allow Los Angeles to increase its purchases from Metropolitan during droughts at the expense of San Diego County.

San Diego water officials would like the county, within two decades, to be buying less than 33% of its water from Metropolitan.

"We're over-invested in Metropolitan," said Ken Weinberg, the authority's director of water resources. "By diversifying our supply, we're hedging" on the issue of whether the preferential rights rule will ever be invoked.

The 21 projects approved Thursday would be in addition to the authority's historic agreement last year to buy water from farmers in the water-rich Imperial Valley.

An initial estimate is that the building projects, at most, will cost the average customer an additional $54.64 a year, although that figure could increase if interest rates were raised or initial estimates for the projects proved to have been low.

Adan Ortega, Metropolitan vice president, said that it would be "good news for all of Southern California" if San Diego County followed through on its ambitious plans because it would free up water for other areas.

"We're surprised they didn't do this sooner, like the rest of Southern California," Ortega said. "They're only now embarking on what other areas have done over several decades." He noted that the San Diego water board had delayed approving a financing plan. "Until then you don't have a plan, you have half a plan," he said.

Forced by the federal government during World War II to join Metropolitan -- so that water could be shipped southward to aid the war effort -- San Diego has never been comfortable with the relationship.

For years, San Diego has been MWD's biggest and unhappiest client among the local agencies in six counties that buy its water.

Bernie Rhinerson, chairman of the authority's board of directors, called the addition of the 21 projects "a bold vision." The vision, however, signifies the death of another proposal that had long been discussed: a binational aqueduct to carry both San Diego's and Tijuana's share of the Colorado River. The project was deemed too expensive.

Beset by a rising population, rapidly depleting groundwater and porous water infrastructure, Mexican officials have long warned that their region may soon face a water crisis.

The building projects' financing -- to be adopted at a later meeting -- would call for the authority to go to Wall Street for a series of bond issues, to be paid by an increase in water rates for residential and commercial customers. The bond issues do not require voter approval.

The most ambitious of the projects is a desalination plant that officials hope can supply up to 15% of San Diego County's water needs by 2020. It may also be the most iffy and the one where the cost estimates would need to be revised.

The plan adopted by the board assumes a cost of $668 million for a plant capable of turning out 80 million gallons of fresh water daily. That cost estimate is based on figures derived when the authority was working with a Connecticut-based firm to build such a plant at the Encina Power Plant in Carlsbad.

The authority and the firm, Poseidon Resources, have broken off negotiations due to disputes over money and control. The authority is now hunting for a new location and possible new partners.

Still, desalination remains central to the movement to gain independence from Metropolitan. San Diego County has little groundwater.

Among the projects included in Thursday's move were plans to raise the San Vicente Dam to increase storage capacity, build a treatment plant near San Marcos, and add pipelines.

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