MWD Rate Challenges


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Water Authority Board Chair Jim Madaffer sent a letter to the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California on Oct. 25, 2018, that lays out compromises by both parties designed to end nearly a decade of litigation over MWD’s rates. The letter includes specific, practical terms that respect both the Water Authority’s and MWD’s perspectives and seeks an equitable conclusion.

Read the Oct. 25 letter from Chair Madaffer to the MWD Board.

Litigation Produces Significant Benefits

Landmark litigation initiated by the San Diego County Water Authority has produced significant benefits for water ratepayers across the San Diego region. By challenging rates set by the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California that violate cost-of-service requirements of California law, including Proposition 26, the Water Authority secured major victories in 2017 that include:

Water Authority General Counsel Mark Hattam on Feb. 22, 2018, updated the Board of Directors on the Water Authority’s legal challenges to rates set by the Metropolitan Water District.
  • MWD must pay the Water Authority approximately $44 million for so-called “Water Stewardship” charges MWD added to the transportation rates it illegally charged the Water Authority from 2011-2014. MWD used this money to fund local supply and conservation projects for some MWD member agencies. The final amount of damages, including pre- and post-judgment interest, will be determined by the trial court on remand. The decision also prevents MWD from imposing more than $15 million in illegal charges annually going forward. Through 2047, those unlawful charges would have amounted to approximately $1.1 billion.
  • The Water Authority is entitled to approximately 100,000 acre-feet of additional MWD water annually – about twice the production of the $1 billion Claude “Bud” Lewis Carlsbad Seawater Desalination Plant. The court determined that MWD unlawfully under-calculated the Water Authority’s statutory water right. As a result of the recalculation, the Water Authority's preferential right to MWD water increased from 18.53 percent to 24.22 percent in fiscal year 2018.
  • A determination that MWD breached its contract with the Water Authority by not setting legal rates.
  • MWD cannot enforce a contract clause it used to disqualify local water supply projects in San Diego County from receiving funding because the courts determined it was unconstitutional.
  • The Water Authority believes it is entitled to recover attorneys’ fees from MWD, the final amount of which will be determined on remand to the Superior Court.

Public Records Act Lawsuit on MWD Rate Model

The San Diego County Water Authority filed legal action in August 2016 under the California Public Records Act to compel MWD to disclose a fully functioning rate model so the public can understand how MWD sets its rates and charges.

Read the court documents. 

The Water Authority’s Board of Directors has already determined that any money returned to the Water Authority will be refunded to its 24 member agencies in proportion to their payment of MWD’s illegal overcharges over the years in dispute, after deducting any litigation expenses that are not recovered.  

The Water Authority also challenged MWD’s allocation of its State Water Project supply cost to the transportation rate it charges to move the Water Authority’s independent Colorado River supplies. While the trial court in 2015 found those rates to be illegal and invalid, that finding was overturned by the Court of Appeal in June 2017. The Water Authority’s petition to the California Supreme Court to review the Court of Appeal ruling was denied in September 2017.

MWD owns the only large-scale conveyance facilities in Southern California for transporting water. By charging exorbitant rates for “wheeling” the Water Authority’s water across the region, MWD discourages efficient water use and water transfers that could decrease pressure on the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay-Delta, in direct conflict with state laws and policies.

Read the Water Authority’s July 31 petition to the state Supreme Court. 

The Water Authority has additional cases challenging MWD’s rates from 2015-2020 that have been stayed in Superior Court while the appellate proceedings were ongoing.

The Water Authority is represented by Keker, Van Nest & Peters of San Francisco; and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, a national firm with offices in San Diego.


News Releases

State Supreme Court Denies Review of Rate Case, Confirms Important Victories - September 27, 2017

Water Authority Seeks Review of MWD Wheeling Rates by State Supreme Court - July 31, 2017

Water Authority Wins Key Rate Case Rulings at Court of Appeal - June 21, 2017

Court to Hear Appeals in Water Authority Litigation Over Illegal MWD Rates - May 8, 2017

San Diego Civic and Business Leaders Call on MWD to ‘Stop the Spending!' - March 22, 2017

Adoption of Illegal MWD Rates Forces Fourth Water Authority Lawsuit - MWD Board ignores court order to set rates based on state law - April 13, 2016

Final Judgment in Rate Case Secures Landmark Water Authority Victories - MWD owes Water Authority $235 million and rights to more MWD water supply - Nov. 19, 2015

Court Awards $188.3 Million Plus Interest to Water Authority in Rate Case Victory - July 15, 2015

Trial Challenging MWD Rates Concludes in Superior Court - April 29, 2015

Water Authority Sues Metropolitan Water District over Rates for 2015 and 2016 - May 30, 2014

Final Ruling: Water Authority Wins Landmark Rate Litigation Against Metropolitan Water District - April 25, 2014

MWD Adopts Unnecessary Rate Increases for 2015 and 2016 While Over-Collecting $350 Million from Ratepayers - April 8, 2014

San Diego County Water Authority Wins Landmark Ruling in Rate Challenge Against Metropolitan Water District of Southern California - February 25 2014

Landmark Trial Over MWD's Rates Concludes in Superior Court - December 23, 2013

Trial Begins Tuesday in Water Authority’s Lawsuits Challenging MWD’s Rates - December 16, 2013

Water Authority Seeks Pre-Trial Decision Declaring MWD’s ‘Rate Structure Integrity’ Clause Illegal and Unenforceable - September 20, 2013

Court Denies MWD Motion Seeking to Exempt its Rates from Proposition 26 - September 20, 2013

Water Authority’s Rate Lawsuits Against MWD Go to Trial Dec. 17 - July 24, 2013

Judge Limits MWD’s Discovery Demands in Litigation Challenging its Rates - May 14, 2013

Judge Rules Prop. 26 does not Apply to 2010 Lawsuit Challenging MWD’s Rates - March 30, 2013

Water Authority Gains Ground in High-Stakes Lawsuit Against Metropolitan - Jan. 15, 2013

Two Water Authority Rate Cases Against Metropolitan Water District to be Coordinated - Nov. 9, 2012

Judge Rejects MWD Efforts to Avoid Discovery in Water Authority Rate Challenge - Aug. 3, 2012

Court Clears the Way for Water Authority's Lawsuit to Be Heard - July 2, 2012

Water Authority Files New Lawsuit Against Metropolitan Water District Challenging 2013 and 2014 Water Rates - June 8, 2012

Appellate Court Summarily Denies MWD Writ Petition to Prevent Discovery in Rate Case - April 19, 2012

San Diego County Water Authority Calls on MWD to Cut Spending and Cap Rate Hikes at 3 Percent - March 26, 2012

@MWDFACTS Twitter Feed Launched to Provide Immediate Access to Information about MWD’s Proposed Rate Increases and Decisions - March 22, 2012

Appellate Court to Review Key Pre-Trial Decision in Water Authority Rate Case vs. Metropolitan Water District - March 16, 2012

Public Records Detailing Inner Workings of Metropolitan Water District “Secret Society” Now Available Online - March 15, 2012

Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to Vote on Rate Increases in April - March 13, 2012

Public Records Reveal Shadow Government Controlling the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California - March 12, 2012

Water Authority Launches “MWD Facts: The Truth About the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California” - March 7, 2012

Court Reaffirms Prior Order Granting Discovery in Water Authority’s Rate Case Against Metropolitan Water District of Southern California - Feb. 17, 2012

Court Grants Discovery in Water Authority’s Rate Case Against MWD - Jan. 6, 2012

Court Ruling Allows New Claims to Remain in Water Authority’s Case Against MWD - Jan. 4, 2012

Water Authority Expands its Lawsuit Against MWD- Oct. 27, 2011

Metropolitan Water District Cancels Funding for Local Water Supply Projects in Retaliation for Lawsuit Challenging its Rates - June 14, 2011

Water Authority Board Approves Filing a Lawsuit Against
 Metropolitan Water District Challenging Illegal Water Rates - June 10, 2010


Court Documents


Correspondence and Consultant Reports

Water Authority Won Key Rulings at Court of Appeal

On June 21, 2017, the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the Water Authority on nine out of 10 significant issues, including that MWD: breached its contract with the Water Authority, which required MWD to set legal rates; undercounted the Water Authority’s right to MWD water by approximately 100,000 acre-feet a year; and collected tens of millions of dollars in illegal "water stewardship" charges from San Diego ratepayers.

But the Court of Appeal ruled against the Water Authority on one important issue that has broad implications for California ratepayers and taxpayers, finding that certain state “project water supply charges,” itemized by the Department of Water Resources as transportation-related for purposes of billing its own customers and comprising about 75 percent of total State Water Project costs, could be treated by MWD as though they were its transportation costs and charged to its transportation-only customers. This single issue, involving the court’s analysis of State Water Project supply costs, was the basis of the Water Authority’s petition to the state Supreme Court.

Read the Appellate Court documents.

Superior Court Rulings Favored Water Authority

Superior Court Judge Curtis E.A. Karnow ruled in November 2015 that MWD’s rates for 2011-2014 were illegal. The judge directed MWD to pay the Water Authority more than $243 million in damages, costs, pre-judgment interest and attorneys’ fees – the largest plaintiff’s award in the state for 2015. Judge Karnow also ordered MWD to only set legal rates in future years.

The Water Authority’s Board of Directors has already determined that any money returned to the Water Authority will be refunded to its 24 member agencies in proportion to their payment of MWD’s illegal overcharges over the years in dispute, after deducting any litigation expenses that are not recovered.  

Judge Karnow issued a peremptory writ of mandate that, going forward, commands MWD to:

  • “Enact only legal transportation and wheeling rates in the future, and specifically, not to do the things this Court held were illegal and/or unconstitutional in the Court’s April 24, 2014 Statement of Decision….”
  • “…henceforth set its rates based upon cost causation – that is, Met must charge for its services based only on what it costs to provide them.”
  • “…not… include in its future transportation or wheeling rates costs that are not attributable to Met’s own conveyance system or to its actual costs in conveying water.”
  • “…allocate its costs associated with local water supply development, water reclamation, desalination and conservation programs to Met’s rates and charges based on cost causation. The costs of such programs may be included in Met’s wheeling rate only to the extent that the costs of transporting wheeled (i.e. non-Met) water are a function of the costs of such programs.”

On his order barring MWD from including in its future transportation or wheeling rates costs that are not attributable to MWD’s own conveyance system, Judge Karnow explicitly ruled that:

“Met does not own or operate the State Water Project (SWP) or the SWP transportation facilities, nor does Met transport SWP water from Northern California to the terminal reservoirs at Castaic Lake and Lake Perris.  The SWP is not part of Met’s conveyance system, and the SWP conveyance facilities are not a part of Met’s conveyance facilities.”

This is a very significant aspect of the ruling because MWD claimed throughout the trial that the separately owned and operated California Department of Water Resources’ State Water Project facilities were actually part of MWD’s own conveyance system and thus could be treated as an MWD “transportation” cost.  MWD’s State Water Project costs constitute the largest share of costs that the Court held were improperly charged by MWD to the Water Authority for transporting the Water Authority’s independent Colorado River supplies.

In addition, as part of the judgment, Judge Karnow ruled that he will retain continuing jurisdiction to enforce his judgment and the peremptory writ of mandate.

Read the Nov. 18 Final Judgment and Peremptory Writ of Mandate.

Water Authority Assistant General Manager Dennis Cushman announces the victory of Phase 2 litigation against MWD for illegal overcharges of 2011-2014 water rates.

Read the Phase 2 Final Statement of Decision.

The final ruling by Judge Karnow included  a determination that MWD’s interpretation of a statutory water rights formula has improperly excluded payments by the Water Authority for transporting the Water Authority’s independent Colorado River water supplies. By law, each MWD member agency is entitled to a percentage of MWD’s available water supplies at any time based on all payments made to MWD throughout history – “excepting the purchase of water.”

The court found that the Water Authority has been purchasing transportation service from MWD to convey water supplies the Water Authority buys from the Imperial Irrigation District and from lining the All American and Coachella canals in the Imperial Valley, rejecting MWD’s argument that the Water Authority’s transfer supplies were purchases of MWD water that should therefore be excluded from the calculation of preferential rights. Correct assessment of the Water Authority’s preferential rights will mean access to tens of thousands of acre-feet of water per year for the San Diego region, a significant increase in supplies.

Fourth rate case lawsuit filed

Ignoring the judge’s ruling and order to set only lawful rates, MWD's board of directors on April 12, 2016, approved rates and charges for 2017 and 2018 using the same illegal methodology that it used in 2011-2014. MWD charges an illegally high rate to transport the Water Authority’s independent Colorado River supplies.

MWD’s overcharges of the Water Authority for 2017 and 2018 are expected to be more than $134 million, and overcharges for the eight years contested by the Water Authority are approximately $524 million (not counting the interest, court costs and attorney’s fees from 2015-2018).

The Water Authority in April 2016 filed its fourth lawsuit against MWD, alleging that MWD’s rates for 2017 and 2018 violate California law, the state Constitution and common law that all require rates to be set based upon cost of service.

Read the April 2016 Complaint filed by the Water Authority.

Phase 1 ruling finds MWD violations

In April 2014, Judge Karnow issued his final statement of decision in Phase 1 of the Water Authority's legal challenge to rates set by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Judge Karnow upheld and strengthened his tentative ruling issued Feb. 25. Judge Karnow ruled that MWD's rates for 2011, 2012, 2013 and 2014 violate cost of service requirements of California’s Constitution, statutes and common law.  Specifically, Judge Karnow’s final statement of decision is that MWD’s rates violate:

  • Proposition 26
  • the Wheeling Statute
  • Government Code Section 549997(a)
  • Common law rules that apply to ratemaking

The final Phase 1 ruling came in lawsuits filed in 2010 and 2012 by the San Diego County Water Authority challenging rates imposed by MWD for 2011-2014.

Read a summary of Phase 1 key findings and the Statement of Decision.

Over the five-day trial held Dec. 17-23, 2013, in San Francisco Superior Court, the Water Authority’s attorneys presented reams of evidence and witness testimony that proved MWD’s rates artificially inflate the cost of its water transportation services by improperly including unrelated expenses. Numerous California statutes, the California Constitution and common law all require that public agencies such as MWD base their rates on the actual costs of the services provided.

MWD’s flawed rates create overcharges for San Diego County for the transportation of water and corresponding undercharges for the water MWD sells to its member agencies.

The Water Authority first sued MWD in June 2010 for adopting illegal rates that are not based on the costs of providing the services for which they are collected. The Water Authority filed another lawsuit in June 2012 because the 2010 case had not been resolved and MWD had adopted rates for 2013 and 2014 based on its same flawed allocation.

On May 30, 2014, the Water Authority filed a third legal challenge against MWD’s rates following a decision by the MWD Board to adopt rates for 2015 and 2016 using the same illegal methodology it used the prior four years.


Two decades ago, almost all of San Diego County’s water needs were met by a single supplier – the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.  In 1991, after a multi-year drought severely limited water supplies, MWD cut water deliveries 30 percent to the San Diego region, severely impacted the local economy and quality of life. Delivery cuts of 50 percent were only averted by “Miracle March” rains. The Water Authority Board then set forth a course to develop a supply diversification strategy to ensure that the region was never again dependent on a single supplier for nearly all of its water.

The cornerstone of this diversification strategy is a set of historic agreements the Water Authority signed in 2003 to secure its own sources of water from the Colorado River. Under long-term agreements, ranging from 45 to 110 years, the Water Authority purchases water from the Imperial Irrigation District and receives other independent water supplies from relining the All-American and Coachella canals. In order to get this water to San Diego County, the Water Authority uses pipelines that are controlled by MWD.

The Water Authority is the only MWD member agency that uses the pipelines MWD controls to transport a large volume of third party water supplies each year.

MWD’s Misallocation of Costs

The Water Authority believes that MWD is overcharging to transport this water and is using that money to subsidize the cost of water MWD sells to its member agencies. This practice violates the California Constitution, other state law and standard water utility practice.

Water conserved by the All-American Canal lining project is an important part of the Water Authority's Colorado River water supplies.

About half of MWD's supplies come from its purchases from the State Water Project under a supply contract with the Department of Water Resources. Instead of treating these purchases as a cost of water, MWD allocates nearly 80 percent of the cost to charges it imposes for the transportation of the Water Authority's water through MWD facilities - even though MWD does not own the state system, and not a drop of Water Authority's own Colorado River water supplies touches that system. This discriminates against the Water Authority, which is the single largest user of MWD transportation services. The Water Authority uses MWD facilities to transport Colorado River water it purchases under a water conservation agreement with the Imperial Irrigation District, and also from lining sections of the All-American and Coachella Canals.

Financial Impacts to San Diego County Ratepayers

MWD’s illegal rates cause significant financial harm to the San Diego region. The overcharges may grow to as much as $217 million annually as the Water Authority’s independent Colorado River supplies reach their peak in 2021. Collectively, these overcharges could amount to $2.1 billion over the life of the agreements.

Protecting Ratepayers

In 2010, after years of trying to work with MWD to resolve concerns with MWD’s-rate setting practices, the Water Authority filed a lawsuit against MWD for its 2011 and 2012 rates.  The Water Authority filed a second suit in June 2012, after MWD set rates for 2013 and 2014 that were based on the same flawed cost-of-service methodology as the first action. The second lawsuit was necessary because MWD’s delays in the first lawsuit slowed its resolution.

The Water Authority’s two lawsuits against MWD present common factual and legal elements. Each lawsuit asserts that MWD’s rates assign water supply costs to transportation rates in violation of state law and the state Constitution. Both cases also allege that the water rates set by MWD discriminate against the Water Authority by artificially inflating the price charged for “wheeling” (or transporting) water through MWD’s pipes if it is purchased from a water supplier other than MWD.

Why are MWD’s Rates Illegal?

MWD is legally required to charge rates that are reasonably related to the costs of services provided and reasonably allocated among its member agencies according to the benefit they receive from particular services. The Water Authority’s lawsuit claims MWD is improperly charging hundreds of millions of dollars in water supply costs to its System Access Rate, System Power Rate and Water Stewardship Rate. These three rate components comprise MWD’s transportation Rate.

The lawsuits allege:

Range of MWD Overcharges in 2021
The financial impact of MWD's overcharges could vary greatly depending on potential costs to fix the Bay-Delta and incentives to develop local water supplies
  • MWD’s rates misallocate MWD’s “supply” costs by characterizing the water MWD purchases under its contract with the State Water Project as “transportation” when in fact MWD does not own or operate any of the facilities that deliver State Water Project water to Metropolitan. The State of California owns and operates those facilities.
  • MWD’s rates misallocate MWD’s “supply” costs by characterizing its subsidy investments in water conservation and local water supply projects, such as recycled water and seawater desalination, as “transportation” costs.
  • At the urging of self-interested member agencies, MWD’s board has set invalid rates without taking into account where the costs should be properly allocated.  MWD is not following clear industry standards or California law.
  • MWD’s illegal rates breach a 2003 contract with the Water Authority in which MWD promised to charge the Water Authority for water transportation services in accordance with state law.
  • The 2012 lawsuit additionally alleges that MWD violated Proposition 26, a voter-approved measure passed in November 2011. Prop. 26 aims to prevent public agencies from passing hidden taxes by ensuring that rate increases are tied to cost of service.
  • In its 2012 lawsuit, the Water Authority is also seeking to address another major flaw in MWD’s rates: MWD has failed to properly recover tens of millions of dollars annually in operational and other costs it incurs as a “standby” supplier for member agencies whose water demands vary greatly from year to year.  MWD has not performed adequate studies or calculated the costs of purchasing, storing and delivering water supplies to meet the varying annual needs of its member agencies. Instead, MWD misallocates many of these costs to its other rates. MWD's current rate structure is akin to allowing member agencies getting the insurance benefits, without ever paying for the service. This practice forces steady MWD customers, such as the Water Authority, to pay a disproportionate share of the costs of providing this stand-by service.  The annual benefit is estimated at $40 million, just for the city of Los Angeles, which has historically altered its purchases of MWD water by more than 200,000 acre-feet from one year to the next.