With a key vote just weeks away, cities and water agencies across the region are scrambling to figure out the ramifications of a first-ever shortage allocation plan that would govern water deliveries to communities stretching from the Santa Monica Mountains to the Inland Empire and south to the Mexican border.
Deep rifts are developing among some of the 26 member agencies of the Metropolitan Water District over allotments under the plan, which will kick in if current water shortages necessitate rationing, possibly as early as spring.
The MWD imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River and sells it to its member agencies to supplement local supplies, such as groundwater.
Some critics say the plan, devised by MWD staff, heavily favors Los Angeles and growing communities while penalizing smaller, less affluent, built-out cities with less clout. Some worry that steep penalties could drive up water bills at a time when the MWD already says it will probably have to raise rates 20% to 30% by 2011.
Under the plan's complex formula, more water would flow to cities and agencies that depend heavily on MWD water as well as those that abruptly lose local supplies, are in growing areas or have installed certain water-conserving devices such as low-flow toilets.
Los Angeles would benefit from the "loss of local supply" feature if a drought sharply reduced the water it imports from the Eastern Sierra through the Los Angeles Aqueduct. San Diego, which gets most of its water from the MWD, would also receive assistance, since it has virtually no groundwater.
The formula would be the first of its kind adopted by the MWD, which cut supplies across the board in the droughts of the late 1970s and early '90s.
The plan drew criticism almost as soon as it was unveiled. More than 80 officials from cities along the 710 and 605 freeway corridors crowded into a Commerce meeting room Jan. 9. Some attacked the plan as disproportionately hurting lower-income, largely minority communities. Cerritos, Downey, Norwalk, Paramount and other cities have written letters asking for more time to study the proposal.
Kevin Wattier, the Long Beach Water Department general manager, said Friday that his agency may sue to block the plan if the MWD board approves it as expected Feb. 12. He believes that the proposal fails to account for how the sheer size of Los Angeles' water consumption could severely squeeze smaller cities' supplies in a major drought.
Last year, for example, low flows in its aqueduct from the Sierra forced the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which supplies water to city residents, to buy 253,000 acre-feet more water from the MWD than it had the previous year.
Los Angeles, Pasadena and several other cities in the region have voiced support for the proposal, calling it a significant move toward equity in a region of cities with vastly different water supplies and needs.
Cities that back the plan say it will "spread the pain" of a shortage.
"We realize if we're all going to go into our corners and fight for our little issue, we're not going to get a solution," said Shan Kwan, director of the Pasadena water services division. "Everyone is going to have to make some sacrifice, some compromise, to make this work for the region."
MWD General Manager Jeff Kightlinger said the proposal gives communities time to plan for possible cuts.
"Once people get past complaining or looking at what they may or may not be cut, they'll say, 'OK, I can start planning,' " Kightlinger said. "That's the goal here, to give people information so that they can go out and do what they can locally."
Others call the plan anything but fair.
"We think it favors big users, like L.A. and San Diego. It subsidizes agricultural water when we are going to be paying very high prices. We're concerned for our ratepayers," said Vince Brar, senior assistant city manager for Cerritos.
"It certainly favors the newer areas over the more established ones," said Jim Glancy, director of water resources for Lakewood.
Peter E. Rodriguez of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District, which delivers water to communities from South Pasadena to Covina, offered this scenario: "Suddenly, the need based on growth is higher in the Inland Empire -- and suddenly, that means that in some older communities, the water allocation is reduced. That could mean higher rates, higher penalties."
Some older cities are disturbed by what they see as the loss of their preferential rights. Those rights favor the first members of the MWD, which was created in 1928 when local cities banded together to finance the construction of the Colorado River Aqueduct. In return, those cities, including Los Angeles, Pasadena, Compton and Long Beach, were to be first in line in times of shortage.
The new formula would not give the same preferential rights to early MWD members during years of water shortages.
That angers Long Beach water officials, who say their customers will pay more as a result.
Their counterparts in Los Angeles have a different take.
"We're happy with the formula, even though on paper it would look better for Los Angeles with preferential rights," said James McDaniel, chief operating officer for water at the DWP. "We feel you'd have a real disconnect if you went down that road. There would be a lot of inequity among the systems."
Others say lower-income residents would fare poorly under the plan. Those consumers are already "paying very high rates and conserving the most that they can," said Miriam Torres of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water.
Residents in low-income areas may live in homes with older, inefficient appliances that neither they nor their water district can afford to replace, said Heather Cooley, senior research associate at the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit think tank based in Oakland.
"I would urge the Metropolitan Water District to consider providing additional funding for water conservation to these communities so that they can meet the water allocation budget," Cooley wrote in an e-mail.
Even if the plan is approved next month, MWD officials say they may not have to use the allocation this year, or at all. That depends on a number of variables: how much snow falls in the Sierra, how much longer an eight-year drought continues in the Colorado River Basin and how a federal judge rules in a case brought by environmental groups to protect Central Valley salmon.
Critics said that barring an upset, they expect the plan to win approval. The chairwoman of the key committee that will review it Feb. 11 is Nancy Sutley, Los Angeles' deputy mayor for energy and the environment, and the vice chairman is Jim Barrett, director of the San Diego Water Department.
Representation on the 37-member board is determined not by population, but by the assessed property valuations of specific member cities and agencies.
Los Angeles, San Diego and Orange County each have four votes, and the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which covers many of the southeast L.A. County cities concerned about the plan, has two. Most other cities and agencies each have one. Then, each vote is weighted according to valuation.