The San Diego County Water Authority board of directors today voted to seek legal clarification of an antiquated formula used by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD) to calculate the amount of water to which each of MWD's member agencies is legally entitled. The lawsuit is an attempt to bring closure to decades of uncertainty surrounding “preferential rights” to water from MWD and to ensure that the amount of water the Water Authority has rights to more accurately reflects payments it has made to MWD.
Under the current structure, the Water Authority has a “preferential right” to less than 15 percent of MWD’s water, while it historically has contributed 22 percent of MWD's total revenue.
“There is no longer a logical correlation between the financial contributions of member agencies and their legal rights to water,” said James Turner, chairman of the Water Authority's board of directors.
“We have an obligation to provide a safe, reliable water supply to our 23 member agencies serving almost 3 million people. We simply cannot plan responsibly when we cannot be certain that water we are paying for will be available to our own member agencies when we need it.”
According to Turner, when the legislature first devised the water allocation formula in the 1930s, it tied the entitlements, or “preferential rights”, its member agencies had to MWD’s water to the property tax revenues provided by those member agencies.
“Although it was a reasonable approach then, when most of MWD’s revenues came from property taxes, more than 70 years later the current formula still remains largely based on property taxes, which now provide only 9 percent of MWD’s revenues,” Turner said.
Today most of MWD’s revenue comes from water sales, and the Water Authority is MWD’s largest customer, buying 28 percent of its water.
The board's action came after years of unsuccessful attempts by the Water Authority to work with MWD on developing a more equitable approach to allocating water rights. Just recently, MWD's general manager proposed that the issue of preferential rights be resolved by declaring a "permanent state of water emergency" in Southern California. According to the general manager, making such an emergency declaration would give authority over water allocations to the MWD Board of Directors, superceding its member agencies' preferential rights.
“While we greatly appreciate MWD’s recognition of the problem, we find its most recent proposed ‘solution’ an unacceptable and irresponsible idea that has ramifications far beyond the San Diego water community and its customers. Declaring a permanent state of water emergency would be economically devastating to Southern California," Turner said.
Turner also said that MWD’s proposal of declaring a false drought as a viable means of resolving the preferential rights issue confirms that the Authority will continue to have difficulty reaching a solution within the MWD structure.
“We have concluded that the most expeditious, legally sound and politically painless route is to simply ask the court to clarify the law," said Turner.
Turner acknowledged that the Water Authority board could not predict how the courts would rule, but noted that the board preferred certainty to continued ambiguity.
“For the Water Authority board, any certainty and finality is progress," he said. "We must know where we stand -- we must know if our water supply is reliable.”
During the last severe drought of the late '80 and early '90, MWD cuts resulted in a 31 percent reduction in the San Diego region's supply. Member agencies that had contributed far less to MWD’s capital costs received a greater proportion of the available water supply. San Diego narrowly avoided 50 percent cutbacks only because of “miracle” March rainstorms in 1991.
“We don’t mind paying our fair share for water," Turner said, "but we can no longer continue to live with a system that requires us to be first in line to pay money and last in line to get water.”
The San Diego County Water Authority is a public agency serving the San Diego region as a wholesale supplier of water from Northern California and the Colorado River. The Water Authority works through its 23 member agencies to provide a safe, reliable, water supply to more than 2.9 million county residents.