MWD’s biggest customer rips it in online campaign

MWD’s biggest customer rips it in online campaign

The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — the giant water wholesaler which supplies 19 million people — finds itself the target of an unusual campaign by the San Diego County Water Authority, which has been both MWD’s biggest customer and its archenemy for much of the past quarter-century.

Visitors to Rough & Tumble, the insider-beloved news aggregator devoted to California politics and government, generally see two or three flashing ads under its masthead. This month, two are always on view. One touts the Cabinet Report education website. The other asks, “Is the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California Over-Charging You?” Those who click on the latter ad are taken to a website run by the San Diego water agency,, packed with unflattering reports about MWD, its leaders and its history.

You could call it a 21st-century version of “Chinatown” — hardball water politics going places no one has gone before.

MWD targeted San Diego officials at least twice

MWD-seal_1_5The MWD-San Diego feud began in the early 1990s when San Diego officials responded to being squeezed on supplies during a severe drought by seeking to hugely diversify where they got water, starting with obtaining some of the massive allotment going to agriculture in Imperial County. MWD took this decision from its largest client as an outrageous affront and launched what the Los Angeles Times later called a “clandestine effort to discredit San Diego County water leaders,” a well-funded campaign in which communications firms were paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to push stories that the county agency was betraying its residents by forcing them to pay more for water than necessary.

San Diego County Water Authority leaders also alleged that MWD had launched another conspiratorial campaign against the agency more recently. In 2014, documents obtained by the authority showed MWD had orchestrated one of its member agencies’ public-relations campaign against the San Diego agency while denying involvement.

The San Diego County Water Authority was 95 percent reliant on MWD supplies in 1991. This year, it says 49 percent of the water it delivers to 3.2 million people comes from MWD, and that figure will drop even more in coming months when the Carlsbad desalination plant, the largest in the Western Hemisphere, goes online. MWD has never wavered from its primary criticism of the San Diego approach: that it forces customers to use much more expensive supplies without solid reasons.

Filling reservoirs during a drought

But the San Diego agency’s record in dealing with the state’s lengthy drought has made charges of incompetence tough to stick. The only reason the San Diego region is making big cuts in water usage is because Gov. Jerry Brown issued a statewide decree. The San Diego County agency announced this spring that it believed it had supplies to cover 99 percent of normal demand in fiscal 2016, which started July 1. This fact, combined with the state-mandated reduction in water use, has led to an unusual phenomenon: One of California’s largest water agencies is steadily filling its reservoirs in the middle of a historic and destructive drought.

The San Diego agency has also enjoyed legal success against MWD after years of claims of systematic overcharging. In a preliminary judgment issued in July and ratified in August, a San Francisco Superior Court judge awarded the the county water authority $188.3 million plus interest for MWD overcharges from 2011-2014. An MWD appeal is considered a certainty.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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