Staff Reporter

For decades, Southern California communities united as one against Northern California to ensure their access to one of the state’s most precious commodities: water.

But in recent months, cracks have begun to appear in Southern California, as a growing dispute pits San Diego against other members of the Southern California Metropolitan Water District, including Los Angeles.

The dispute centers on whether San Diego should be able to buy water on the open market rather than rely on the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California for up to 90 percent of its supply.

San Diego wants to purchase water directly from Imperial County, both as a cost-saving measure and to lessen its dependence on the MWD. The hitch is, the only way for San Diego to get that water is by moving it through the MWD’s aqueduct system.

The MWD has said it will let San Diego use its aqueducts to transport the water but at a price that San Diego says would make the transfers economically unfeasible. The MWD claims its prices are justified, citing the maintenance and infrastructure costs as integral parts of the rates it wants to charge San Diego.

Meanwhile, many MWD members outside San Diego dislike the idea of transporting private waters through the MWD aqueduct system a process known as water wheeling.

They say water wheeling would lower demand in Southern California, which would in turn lower MWD revenues from water sales.

That lowering of revenues, they say, would force up rates for Southern California districts that continue to buy MWD water including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power since the MWD would have to spread its maintenance and upgrading costs over a smaller customer base.

“We support the concept of water wheeling, but we are concerned about the possible cost impacts to our customers as San Diego has proposed the deal,” said Jerry Gewe, the engineer of water resources at the DWP.

Gewe expressed particular concern about the MWD’s $3.9 billion capital improvement program, which is funded by the member agencies.

The program was designed to increase the reliability of Southern California’s water supply, which is subject to drops during droughts and, more recently, growing competition from other states for water from the Colorado River, said Brian Thomas, MWD assistant chief of planning and resources.

The 27 districts in the MWD “worked together on an integrated plan after the drought of 1991 to 1995, and we all came up with a plan with a high probability for success,” Thomas said. “San Diego was an integral part of the process, and then at the end they started their efforts with the Imperial Irrigation District.”

Indeed, potentially higher water costs are a concern for water districts throughout Los Angeles, said Bonny Herman, a director in the L.A. delegation of the MWD.

“We want fairness for everybody, with no harm and no cost shifting. When (San Diego) goes out and gets new water, they haven’t paid for the (MWD’s) infrastructure. They don’t want to pay for it,” Herman said.

To publicly voice their misgivings over the San Diego’s water wheeling plans, 10 of the MWD’s 27 constituent members, including the DWP and four other L.A. County water districts, banded together several weeks ago to “get out the message that we’re concerned,” said Gewe.

Now, San Diego is having its say.

Chris Frahm, who chairs the San Diego County Water Authority, will seek to persuade L.A. business and water officials that San Diego is a friend, not foe, in an address this week to the L.A. Area Chamber of Commerce.

Frahm said San Diego has already agreed not to reduce the volume of water it purchases from the MWD, even if it signs a deal to buy water from Imperial County. Instead, she said, San Diego wants to purchase the water from Imperial County to fuel San Diego County’s growth over the next 10 years.

“We’re trying to approach this in a manner that would keep MWD whole,” she said. “We’ve got a tremendous investment in the system already and have made a proposal to continue to carry our cost of the system.”

But the MWD’s Thomas said there is a big gap between the rates San Diego would like to pay for using MWD aqueducts and what the MWD wants to charge, Thomas said.

He said San Diego has suggested a price of $60 to $75 for each acre-foot of water it moves through the MWD system (an acre-foot is the amount of water that would cover one acre of land with a foot of water). By comparison, the MWD is asking for closer to $200 per acre foot.

“I think it’s an honest difference of opinion as to how you go about pricing services,” said Thomas. “San Diego believes what you should charge is the cost of moving the water over the aqueduct to San Diego. We take a broader view” that charges should include such things as maintenance and capital costs, he added.

In an effort to end the impasse, San Diego and the MWD have invited David Kennedy, director of the Department of Water Resources for the State of California, into the process as a go-between. Kennedy has met separately with MWD and San Diego water officials over the last three weeks to get up to speed on the dispute.

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