San Diego, L.A. fight water war

April 5, 2012

By Wayne Lusvardi

The water wars are back.

During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order forcing San Diego to join Los Angeles and other cities in Southern California in sharing the costs of the same water canal. That began a 65-year water war that still continues. It has mostly been a cold war.  But lately the war has been heating up.

The San Diego County Water Authority is studying whether to break off from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a confederation of 27 water agencies, and build its own aqueduct to convey water from the Colorado River.

This war is not a shooting war, however.  It is mostly being fought in the courts.  San Diego is also waging an anti-propaganda war against Metropolitan in the media.

War Over Water Wheeling Rates

The San Diego vs. Los Angeles water war is being waged over fair water wheeling rates.  Wheeling means to convey water through unused capacity in an aqueduct or pipeline.

San Diego contends that the Los Angeles County “cabal” of water agencies is shifting an unfair proportion of its total system costs onto San Diego. This war has political overtones, as Los Angeles County has historically been a Democratic Party stronghold and San Diego a bastion of the Republican Party.

San Diego first took water deliveries from Metropolitan in 1947.  By 1949 it was receiving half of MWD’s water allocation from the Colorado River.  Now San Diego receives about 23 percent of MWD’s water allocation.

An acre-foot of water is a football-field size of water one foot high. It is enough for two urban households per year, or one third of an acre of irrigated farmland.

The San Diego vs. Los Angeles water war is not being fought over current water rates, but future water rates.  According to San Diego, its residents overpaid Metropolitan last year by $38 million. However, by 2021, it says the annual overcharge will soar to $217 million.

Metropolitan says its water wheeling rates are based on the total system costs of a socialized water system.  Metropolitan has previously prevailed over San Diego in a prior court case on water-wheeling rates.

The principal and interest on a bond to build a new $1.4 billion to $1.9 billion water canal from the Colorado River would be around $99 million to $135 million per year.

The original cost to build the Colorado River Aqueduct was $220 million.  Adjusted for historical inflation at 4 percent per year, that would indicate about $3.85 billion today.

All-American Canal Has No Pumping Costs

A new water canal to San Diego would probably convey water by gravity flow. Metropolitan’s Colorado River Aqueduct has five huge pumping stations to lift water over remote mountain chains.

By routing the Colorado River Aqueduct over the mountains, water ratepayers in Los Angeles ended up paying for the construction of the Hoover Dam and its hydroelectric power station.

Conversely, farmers built the Coachella and All-American canals to take their allocation of water from the Colorado River. Since these agricultural canals convey water by gravity flow, the farmers avoided the bulk of the cost of water in the Colorado River Aqueduct. Ironically, both the Colorado River Aqueduct and the All-American Canal almost end up in the same place just east of Palm Springs.

Colorado River water is essentially free, except for the conveying, pumping, storage and treatment costs.  Most of the cost of water is the expense of pumping. So San Diego might be better off to become independent of the rest of Southern California.

Due to geological conditions, San Diego County has virtually no local groundwater supplies.  It also has thin water storage capacity. However, it is building a $1.5 billion emergency water storage project at San Vicente Reservoir.

Imperial County Ag Water Transfer

The pool of water that would be conveyed through any new canal would be former farm water from Imperial County.  This farm water became surplus when a court ordered farmers to line the Coachella-All-American Canals, and for San Diego to pay for the lining costs.  This arrangement was finalized in 2003 and lasts 45 years, with a 30-year option to renew.

If San Diego loses its water rate lawsuit, it will continue to get its allocation of Colorado River Water through Metropolitan’s Colorado River Aqueduct via what is called a water transfer. The surplus farm water will be intercepted upstream on the Colorado River and conveyed to San Diego through the Colorado River Aqueduct.  There would be no need to try and build a canal to connect the All-American Canal with the Colorado River Aqueduct to convey surplus farm water to San Diego.

‘A Drought is When You Learn Who Has Water Priority Rights’

San Diego County Water Authority General Manager Maureen Stapleton defined a drought as “when you find out who has the water rights and who doesn’t.”  What she was referring to was the Metropolitan Water District’s Laguna Declaration, signed in 1952. This water treaty guaranteed all of Metropolitan’s member agencies would be provided water in a drought.

But San Diego knew that it was buying about one third of all of Metropolitan’s water. At that time, however, San Diego only had one sixth of all the votes on the Board of Directors. In a drought emergency, Metropolitan’s Board could meet overnight and assign San Diego junior water rights to the 13 senior water agencies in Los Angeles that originally formed the water district.

About 85 percent of San Diego’s water comes from Metropolitan. Los Angeles’s need for backup water supplies in a drought could swell from 34 percent to 65 percent.  San Diego is at the end of Metropolitan’s pipeline system and has a history of being politically disfavored by the majority of water agencies.  Thus, San Diego has always feared that the Laguna Declaration would not hold up in a drought.

Recently, Metropolitan negotiated with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to store up to 1 million acre-feet of water in Lake Mead, as long as Lake Mead had low water conditions. To get this right to store water, Metropolitan had to take Fourth Priority position on 550,000 acre-feet of river water and Fifth Priority position on 662,000 acre-feet of water.  In other words, San Diego’s water supply from the Colorado River could be potentially subordinated to other river users’ water rights.

Metropolitan also relies on the State Water Project for its water supplies. In the last 10 years, Metropolitan’s reliance on Colorado River water has dropped from about two thirds of its supplies to about one third.  Conversely, its reliance on the State Water Project has increased to about two thirds of its water supplies.

Could Colorado River Aqueduct Become Obsolescent?

At some point in the future, Metropolitan may possibly have to look at huge costs to upgrade the Colorado River Aqueduct and de-silt the storage reservoirs along the route of the Aqueduct — the Copper Basin and Gene Wash Reservoirs.

The Colorado River Aqueduct enjoys cheap hydropower from Hoover Dam at $20 per megawatt hour today to power its pumps (equivalent to 2 cents per kilowatt hour).  Should higher energy costs emerge and the aqueduct require upgrading and de-silting, it might be beneficial for Metropolitan to also explore a cheaper alternative for conveying water to urban Southern California.

Metropolitan’s Colorado River Aqueduct absurdly will soon be subjected to cap-and-trade taxes even though it uses clean hydropower to pump water over the mountains to thirsty Southern California cities.  Should San Diego build a new canal to convey water to San Diego by gravity flow, it would not be subject to such taxes.  Taxation thus might end as a determining factor in whether San Diego builds its own canal.

San Diego’s exploration of building its own aqueduct from the Colorado River today might be politicized as a foolish move.  But there might come a time when the high pumping, maintenance and upgrading costs of the Colorado River Aqueduct, coupled with a decreased allocation of river water, might make the Aqueduct obsolescent. That might leave San Diego in a situation where Metropolitan could play its “political drought” card.  That is, unless San Diego builds its own aqueduct.

The San Diego–Metropolitan water war is like two scorpions in a bottle. It is a battle of two powerful water agencies.  The future of San Diego’s water supply and the unity of the Metropolitan Water District could be at stake.


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  1. Beelzebub
    Beelzebub 5 April, 2012, 09:08

    Anything that is required to sustain human life will be used against you and to their great advantage. Water, oxygen, gasoline, medical care, etc… You are forced to pay excessive amounts of your discretionary income for these commodities just because they say so. For they and their crony capitalists are your masters. If you don’t obey they’ll simply turn off the spigot. Pay up or perish! 😉

    Reply this comment
  2. Beelzebub
    Beelzebub 5 April, 2012, 09:47

    Oh, I forgot. Throw ‘electricity’ into that mix too. I read that electricity bills have increased by as much as 250% after the new ‘smart meters’ were installed on your homes without your consent. Afterall, you must pay for the losses that the Edison employees incurred in their pension fund following the meltdown. You must cover more bad casino bets and eat THEIR losses. Did Edison offer to help cover your 401-K losses after the 2008 meltdown? Yet your monthly bill has an added charge to cover their pension fund losses. Pay up or perish! 😉

    Reply this comment
  3. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 5 April, 2012, 12:18

    Check out new added text:

    Metropolitan’s Colorado River Aqueduct absurdly will soon be subjected to cap-and-trade taxes even though it uses clean hydropower to pump water over the mountains to thirsty Southern California cities. Should San Diego build a new canal to convey water to San Diego by gravity flow, it would not be subject to such taxes. Taxation thus might end as a determining factor in whether San Diego builds its own canal.

    Reply this comment
  4. George (GrokSurf)
    George (GrokSurf) 6 April, 2012, 07:11

    Who dreamed up this “gravity flow” to San Diego? Imperial Valley gets its water through gravity flow, true, but getting water from Imperial Valley to San Diego through a new new pipeline requires going through the mountains to San Diego…thus pumping. Alternatively, continuing to use the existing Colorado River Aqueduct already requires pumping through multiple mountains before it reaches the San Diego Aqueduct (which itself uses gravity flow), so there’s no new gravity flow there either. Please explain, someone, how building a canal/pipeline from Imperial Valley to San Diego is going to deliver water from Imperial Valley to San Diego by gravity flow?

    Reply this comment
  5. Wayne Lusvardi
    Wayne Lusvardi 6 April, 2012, 11:28

    To George (GrokSurf):
    Duh, the Metropolitan Water District delivers Colorado River water to San Diego. After the Colorado River Aqueduct pumps water over the mountains in the Mojave Desert it gravity flows from near Palm Springs to San Jacinto in Riverside County. From there the water gravity flows all the way to San Diego in San Diego Pipelines Nos. 1 through 6.

    The Coachella – All American Canal system gravity flows water to a point on the earth just east of Palm Springs. From there a pipeline parallel to the MWD Colorado River Aqueduct and San Diego Pipelines Nos. 1 to 6 could be built to gravity flow water all the way to San Diego.

    One of the routes under study by the San Diego County Water Authority includes a tunnel through the mountains to San Diego – no pumping over the mountains.

    Hypothetically, MWD’s San Diego Pipelines Nos. 1 to 6 could end up being purchased by San Diego County Water Authority.

    Look pal, I worked for the water agency that delivers water to San Diego for 20 years. Please don’t get on your high horse of knowledge superiority on something you don’t know anything about.

    Reply this comment
  6. Eric
    Eric 28 November, 2012, 19:18


    Are there any potential versions of a canal that would make water available to far estern San Diego County?

    Reply this comment

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