Solana Beach irrigation district supports water authority’s lawsuit against Metropolitan Water District


By Joe Tash

Santa Fe Irrigation District directors voted Thursday, Jan. 19, to support a lawsuit against the agency that supplies water to millions of Southern California residents, contending the water wholesaler’s pricing structure is unfair to San Diego County.

The irrigation district’s board of directors voted unanimously to support the lawsuit filed in 2010 by the San Diego County Water Authority against the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

At issue is a complex formula for how the giant water agency — which serves an area of 5,200 square miles in six counties, with 19 million residents — charges for transporting water through its pipelines from the Imperial Valley to San Diego County.

Dennis Cushman, the county water authority’s general manager, told the irrigation district board that between $1.3 billion and $2.1 billion in disputed charges by Metropolitan is at stake for San Diego County residents over the next 45 years.

“This is the battle of a lifetime, of a generation… and we’re asking you to stand with us,” Cushman said.

Metropolitan is a consortium of 26 cities and water districts that provides water to parts of Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The San Diego County Water Authority buys water from Metropolitan, and also uses Met’s pipelines to transport water that it purchases from the Imperial Irrigation District. The county water authority itself is composed of 24 member agencies, including the Santa Fe Irrigation District, other water districts and local cities.

The San Diego County Water Authority is the largest single source of revenue for Metropolitan, accounting for more than 25 percent of Met’s income, according to Cushman, and serving as Met’s “cash cow.”

When the county water authority decided to buy some of its water from Imperial, that move threatened Met’s revenue base, so the agency unfairly changed its pricing structure to make San Diego pay a disproportionately high cost for transporting Imperial Valley water through its pipelines, Cushman said.

“They concocted a rate structure to keep the cash cow in the barn,” Cushman said. “That’s not lawful.”

The county water authority is asking all of its member agencies to pass a resolution in support of the lawsuit, said Cushman, and so far, the city of San Diego and several other local water agencies have done so.

The vote by the Santa Fe Irrigation District board will not cost the district additional money, because it is already helping to pay for the litigation as a member agency of the county water authority, Cushman said.

Along with passing a resolution in support of the lawsuit, the county water authority is asking its member agencies to testify at Metropolitan’s rate-setting hearing on March 12, publish commentaries and letters to the editor supporting the water authority’s position, and feature the litigation in agency publications, on websites and in social media comments.

A number of Metropolitan’s member agencies have sided with Met on the lawsuit, said Cushman, which he attributed to their desire to continue to have San Diego County residents subsidize their water costs “to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year.”

“They want to preserve the status quo. Why? Because it works very well for them,” Cushman said.

After listening to Cushman’s presentation, the Santa Fe board voted to support the water authority lawsuit with little discussion.

The irrigation district purchases about 60 percent of the water it supplies to customers from the county water authority.

Cushman said the improper charges by Metropolitan are one factor in a series of steep rate increases imposed on San Diego County water customers in recent years.

On its website, Metropolitan contends that the San Diego County Water Authority is seeking to avoid paying its fair share of the costs of transporting water from Imperial Valley to San Diego County.

“SDCWA’s lawsuit seeks to avoid paying its share of maintaining this transportation system – at the expense of the system’s other users,” said a statement about the lawsuit on Metropolitan’s website.

“Outside of San Diego, there is overwhelming support for Metropolitan’s current rate structure which reflects an equitable and regional approach,” concluded the statement.

The lawsuit will be heard by a San Francisco Superior Court judge, and a decision by the trial court is expected by the end of this year. Cushman said an appeal of the verdict is likely, no matter which side wins at the trial court level.