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Giant Water Agency Approves Rate Hikes in Southern California

posted on April 13, 2012


SAN DIEGO, California  (AP) - The website displays a clock counting down

seconds to Tuesday's board meeting of Southern California's major

water wholesaler.

     It is part of a new front in California's water wars opened by

the agency that purchases water for San Diego and its suburbs. The

San Diego County Water Authority launched the website last month to

attack the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, its

largest supplier, saying it wanted to lift a veil of secrecy. The

site offers a trove of internal documents obtained under

California's public records law, including references to a "Secret

Society" and an "anti-San Diego coalition."

     Metropolitan, a Los Angeles-based agency that counts San Diego

as the largest of its 26 customers by far, votes on a budget

Tuesday that would raise rates 7.5 percent in 2013 and 5 percent in

2014, a move that San Diego says would hit the nation's

eighth-largest city and its suburbs disproportionately hard. San

Diego wants to limit annual increases to 3 percent.

     Metropolitan defends its practices and has demanded San Diego

remove Metropolitan's defaced seal from the new website,

www.mwdfacts.com. The seal is altered to read, "The Truth About

the Metropolitan Water District of So. Cal."

     Government agencies often fight in and out of court, but the

online war of words is unusual.

     "I found this to be unprecedented in my 25 years of working in

public agencies," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan's general

manager. "I'm a lawyer. I've done a million lawsuits, many of them

public agencies to public agencies ... I've never seen anything

quite like this."

     The bad blood dates back to a drought in the early 1990s when

San Diego began a drive to become less dependent on Metropolitan.

Dennis Cushman, the San Diego agency's assistant general manager,

said the region then got 95 percent of its water from Metropolitan

and now gets less than half.

     As with many water disputes in arid stretches of the West, this

one is just as much about how to move water from one place to

another as it is about the water itself. San Diego lacks its own

water supply and - just as importantly - doesn't own pipes to get

it from somewhere else.

     In 2003, San Diego agreed to buy a big chunk of its water from

California's Imperial Valley in the nation's largest farm-to-city

water transfer. It still needs Metropolitan's 242-mile aqueduct to

carry the water from the Colorado River.

     The same year, Metropolitan introduced a rate structure that

levies one fee for transporting water and another for the water

itself. The San Diego agency alleges the transportation fee

includes lots of unrelated costs, amounting to San Diego

subsidizing other agencies that buy water directly from

Metropolitan. Its claim is the basis of a lawsuit filed in 2010 in

state court that says the new system is stacked against San Diego.

     With the lawsuit not yet scheduled for trial, Metropolitan is

slated to consider two years of rate increases Tuesday under a

system that San Diego says is deeply unfair.

     Metropolitan, whose customers include cities and water agencies

serving 19 million people in six counties, defends the new rate

structure and accuses San Diego of trying to unload costs on

others. It suggests San Diego overpaid for Imperial Valley's water

and is trying to make up for a bad business decision.

     The stakes are so high that many Metropolitan member agencies

began meeting in 2009 to discuss San Diego's challenge to the rate

structure and other issues. San Diego says it didn't learn the

group existed until after a request for public records last October

that has produced more than 60,000 pages of documents.

     The San Diego County Water Authority says the documents show the

group met up to 60 times and alleges that members coordinated votes

with Metropolitan's board of directors, which would potentially

violate the state's open-meetings law. The documents show the group

paid for advice from a consulting firm that employs Ron Gastelum, a

former Metropolitan general manager.

     Two emails from one participant - Chris Theisen, assistant

director of public works for Beverly Hills - refer to the group as

the "Secret Society." Handwritten notes from one meeting mention

the "anti-San Diego coalition."

     San Diego packaged the documents in thick binders and sent them

to reporters throughout California under the heading, "Who really

runs the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California? A

shadow government takes control."

     The tone of its website is highly irreverent. One entry

challenging Metropolitan's spending practices ends with a dig:

"Stubborn things, facts are."

     Metropolitan says there is nothing unusual about staff from

member agencies getting together to discuss issues. In addition, it

adamantly denies the group is a forum to coordinate board votes. In

a letter to the U-T San Diego newspaper, Kightlinger dismissed

references to a "Secret Society" as a tongue-in-cheek jab at what

he called San Diego's outlandish legal claims.

     San Diego swiftly dismissed Metropolitan's demand to remove its

altered seal from its website, saying it was protected free speech.

     "We're communicating publicly what they kept private - and

successfully kept private - for more than two years," said San

Diego's Cushman. "We need to do the public's business in public.

It's really quite an appalling story when you look at it."


Tags: California drought San Diego water rights