POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Apr 24, 2012
SAN DIEGO >> There are accusations of conspiracies, illegal secret meetings and double-dealing. Embarrassing documents and emails have been posted on an official website emblazoned with the words “Fact vs. Fiction.” Animosities have grown so deep that the players have resorted to exchanging lengthy, caustic letters, packed with charges of lying and distortion.
And it is all about water.
Water is a perennial source of conflict and anxiety throughout the arid West, but it has a particular resonance here in the deserts of Southern California. This is a place where major thoroughfares are named after water engineers (Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles), and literary essays (“Holy Water” by Joan Didion, for instance) and films (“Chinatown”) have been devoted to its power and mystique.
Yet in the nearly 80 years since the Arizona National Guard was called out to defend state waters against dam-building Californians, there has been little to rival the feud now under way between San Diego’s water agency and the consortium of municipalities that provides water to 19 million customers in Southern California. This contentious and convoluted battle seems more akin to a tough political campaign than a fight between bureaucrats, albeit one with costly consequences.
At issue is San Diego’s longstanding contention that it has been bullied by a gang of its neighbors in the consortium, able by virtue of their number to force the county to pay exorbitant fees for water. The consortium two weeks ago imposed two back-to-back 5 percent annual water increases on San Diego — scaled down, after strong protests, from what were originally set to be back-to-back increases of 7.5 percent a year.
The battle is being fought in the courts — a judge in San Francisco is struggling to untangle a welter of conflicting claims from the two sides — but also on the Internet. San Diego officials have created a sleek website to carry their argument to the public, posting 500 pages of documents they obtained through public records requests to discredit the other side.
And they might have struck oil, as it were, unearthing documents and emails replete with references to the “anti-San Diego coalition” and “a Secret Society,” and no matter that the purported conspirators contend that they were just being jocular.
There is a lot of frustration,” said Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, who has watched from the sidelines as the independent San Diego Water Authority waged its wars. “It’s been building over the years.”
Asked about the tactics, Sanders demurred. “Whether they are effective or not, I’ll leave that to other people to judge.”
If nothing else, the fight is an entertaining diversion from the kind of bland bureaucratic infighting that usually characterizes these kinds of disputes.
Dennis A. Cushman, the assistant general manager of the San Diego authority, said it posted the documents — and has asked a judge to force the disclosure of a ream of other private emails and documents — so beleaguered water consumers “could see how the business of water in California is actually done.”
“We had suspicions about what was going on,” Cushman said. “We were shocked by the depth and scope and the level of sophistication of what was going on.”
“It’s not done in public,” he added. “It’s done out of public view. The meetings aren’t open. They are designed to expressly exclude the agency they are discriminating against.”
Jeffrey Kightlinger, general manager of the regional water consortium, described the charges as “nonsense,” saying that the meetings that Cushman had deemed illegal did not fall under the state’s open meetings laws. He described the campaign against his organization — the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, also known by the acronym MWD — as unlike anything he had seen.
“It sounds like a political campaign, and hiring political consultants to run it for them strikes me as a new level of activity I haven’t seen before in public service,” he said.
“It just seems to me to have a different tenor and tone than before,” he said. “The idea of bandying about secret-society issues, talking about ‘the truth about MWD,’ strikes me as unprofessional and does a disservice to the public.”
Kevin P. Hunt, general manager of the water district of Orange County, said he was taken aback at the suggestion that some kind of plot was afoot. “It would be funny if it hadn’t created such a furor,” he said. “It was a bunch of guys and gals getting together to do their work. It’s all in the spin you put on it — calling it a ‘secret society’ and making it sound like a cabal. I didn’t even know what a cabal was.”
The case ultimately will be determined in a state court in San Francisco. At issue is how much the district should be charging San Diego to use the district’s pipes to transport water the county bought elsewhere. (San Diego officials have made a concerted effort to expand the sources of their water over the years — including a long-contested, substantial transfer of Colorado River water from inland farmers — so they are not as reliant on the district as they once were).
San Diego has four seats on the district’s 37-member board, and there is little incentive for other communities to entertain San Diego’s argument: When San Diego pays less, everyone else pays more.
Cushman said that the district had come to view San Diego as “its golden egg.”
Still, even supporters of San Diego’s actions suggest that the welter of accusations may ultimately be little more than a sideshow.
“It just doesn’t feel right,” said Lani Lutar, president of the San Diego County Taxpayers Association. “They are already pursuing the lawsuit. Those are ratepayer dollars being spent and all of the advertising. Is that necessary? The lawsuit is going to resolve the matter. The PR stunt has taken it too far.”
San Diego is the eighth-largest city in the country, and this part of California gets 10 inches of rain a year, on average. And this city is at the end of two long water transport systems.
“We’ve always had end-of-pipeline paranoia,” said Lester Snow, executive director of the California Water Foundation and a former head of both the San Diego and state water agencies. “It is often just physical — the pipeline crosses earthquake faults and anything that happens bad anywhere can affect us.”
The long history has left San Diego with what seems to be a permanent sense of grievance. But Snow said that this represented a new level of animosity.
“The current dispute has gone way beyond a rate-increase dispute,” he said.