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Ron Kaye: Balancing conflicting interests in water war

Don't kid yourself, people will kill, or risk being killed, for just about anything of value. They'll take that risk for money, for land, for gold, for diamonds — even for water.

Water, more than anything in our desert climate in Southern California, has long been at the heart of bloody fights, from the earliest days of settlement to "Chinatown" and the rape of the Owens Valley until today, when the water wars are only figuratively bloody. But a lot of people still get hurt.

Southern California's latest water war escalated in the last week — sweeping in Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and other nearby communities — when the San Diego Water Authority accused 20 of the 26 agencies that make up the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California of operating as a shadow government that calls itself the "Secret Society" and operates in the dark to its own advantage.

Last week, San Diego water officials released 500 emails that show how a clique of officials representing a majority of votes have met in secret 60 times over the last three years — an issue that has led to calls for an investigation by the state attorney general for violation of the state's open meeting law.

The question San Diego posed at last Tuesday's public meeting on this issue was whether the Metropolitan staff would offer a list of possible budget cuts before the vote next month on rate hikes of 7.5% next year and 5% the year after.

Water is a precious commodity these days, but Burbank wasn't there to vote. Pasadena's Timothy Brick voted to support the call for possible cuts in what many would say is a lot of questionable spending, and so did Glendale Mayor Laura Friedman.

"I'm always willing to look at cuts," Friedman explained. "I believe all public organizations need to be looked at closely and transparently … I think we have a responsibility to the ratepayers."

Drawing on Colorado River rights and Sacramento Delta supplies, Metropolitan provides half the water to the nearly 20 million people in six Southern California counties. It decides how much water is available, how much it costs, and manages a lot of less obvious rules that can save some agencies tens of millions of dollars a year — or, in the case of San Diego, cost them tens of millions.

How the rules and rates are set mostly depends on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and the Municipal Water District of Orange County, which have 36% of the votes between them. That means they almost always are able to dictate policy — something that has led to disputes and lawsuits by San Diego, which provides 25% of Metropolitan's revenue but rarely wins a battle.

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For the Record: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Municipal Water District of Orange County as the "Orange County Water District," which is a separate agency and not a member of Metropolitan.

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By way of comparison, the Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena water agencies each only have 1% of the voting power and usually find their interests are more in line with L.A. than San Diego, so they have been included in the "Secret Society" where the decisions that matter are made.

San Diego's anger grows out of being charged $40 million extra for Metropolitan to "wheel" its water from the Colorado and the Imperial Valley into the county, and how the rules got changed to deny it rebates for producing new supplies of water for its desalting plant in Carlsbad when everybody else got healthy rebates for developing local water resources.

In terms of attracting public attention, no issue is drier than water, which explains why for the last 30 years, California has been incapable of resolving the political conflicts between north and south, and even within regions, based on the complex calculus of balancing out interests for the greatest good for the greatest number — something that never seemed so difficult before Proposition 13.

Burbank's top water official, Assistant General Manager Bill Mace, dismissed San Diego's complaints as nothing but sour grapes.

"They could have attended meetings if they wanted to," he said. "Look at their complaints: 'You pay a lot less, we pay a lot more.' They are hoping to raise enough hell that the board throws them a bone. We have a lot of recycling and local resources programs and we get the rebates because the Met doesn't have to go out and find it.

"What's wrong with saying if you attack the rate structure, you are going to lose your incentive?"

Friedman agreed.

"They just want to ship their costs to everybody else. But why should we pay for the decisions they have made?" she said. "The issue isn't the budget cuts they raised. It's really complicated. But their problem is their own transportation costs."

It is complicated and it is tough to sort through, but as in so many things these days, we seem far more committed to making war than peace.

That may have worked when we were a land of plenty for nearly everyone, but in this changing world, we need to understand each other's positions better and look for how to balance interests that conflict.

RON KAYE can be reached at kayeron@aol.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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