In an unusual ruling in the family feud between San Diego and Los Angeles over water, a judge in San Francisco on Wednesday barred San Diego representatives of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California from attending closed-door board meetings where San Diego's lawsuit against the agency is discussed.
But San Diego can have a lawyer or other "monitor" present at the meetings as long as he or she does not reveal what was said to San Diego officials, under a preliminary ruling by Superior Court Judge James A. Robertson II.
The ruling applies to discussions of how MWD should respond to a San Diego lawsuit that could determine how water is allocated in Southern California during the next drought, which some officials believe may be fast approaching.
The decision left both sides declaring victory, and other water watchers pondering the complexity and passion of the dispute.
"This whole thing is a comedy," said Steve Erie, water specialist and professor of political science at UC San Diego. "The judge has created a full employment act for lawyers."
In barring board members from San Diego, Robertson said, "you can't have the enemy inside your camp." The "enemy" is also MWD's biggest customer.
The judge also ruled that tape-recordings must be made of all closed-door MWD sessions just in case San Diego decides to allege in court that MWD excluded it from meetings where issues other than the lawsuit are being discussed.
The San Diego County Water Authority is suing the MWD to overturn a half-century-old regulation that gives Los Angeles the right, during a drought, to deprive San Diego County of a major portion of its water supply.
"The history and intensity of this dispute shows it has taken on a life of its own that has overcome the factual conflict," said Randy Kanouse of the East Bay Municipal Utilities District in Northern California.
MWD had gone to court seeking to have San Diego representatives blocked from sitting in on governing board discussions involving how to fight the San Diego lawsuit. San Diego responded by asking that the request be heard by a judge outside MWD's six-county area.
Tom Levy, general manager of the Coachella Valley Water District, said the controversy has "gotten to the point where at times neither side is rational. It's hard to explain: It's like the guy who is always sure his neighbor is doing something to him."
Virtually devoid of ground water, San Diego County now buys 26% of MWD's water. Los Angeles, which also gets water from Owens Valley and other sources, buys 16%.
But during a drought, Los Angeles could buy 23% of MWD water and San Diego County could be limited to 15%. The "preferential rights" formula reflects that Los Angeles was a founding member of MWD and San Diego joined only when it was forced to by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II to help the war effort.
What annoys San Diego officials is that MWD representatives from Los Angeles will be free to attend the closed-door session and urge the board to fight the lawsuit rather than seek a settlement where the formula would be changed.
Maureen Stapleton, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, hailed the judge's decision as "a clear recognition that San Diego has a place at those closed sessions." The San Diego monitor will be able to object if the MWD board starts discussing items other than the lawsuit behind the backs of the San Diegans.
Jeff Kightlinger, MWD attorney, said of the decision, "We won. We asked that San Diego board members not be allowed to attend, and they won't be."