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Historic Win for County Water Authority over MWD Villains

San Diego Union Tribune

On Friday, the San Diego County Water Authority won a historic victory — and sweet vindication — when a judge affirmed its contention that it has been systematically overcharged by the giant Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, known as MWD.

The authority, which supplies about 80 percent of San Diego County, is the biggest client and largest member agency of MWD, a water wholesaler that supplies agencies serving 19 million people from San Diego to Ventura to Riverside. However, county water officials’ aggressive efforts to diversify supplies over the past two decades have led not just to MWD pushback but to skulduggery — both open and hidden.

Topping the list of overt actions: illegal overcharging.

San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Curtis Karnow’s decision announced Friday agreed with the county authority that MWD rates can only legally reflect the amount it costs to convey water supplies to a member agency. Karnow held that MWD’s claim that it can pass along other operating costs as well violates not just state laws dealing with rate-setting but the state Constitution. He invalidated the rates MWD has charged the county authority since 2011.

Going forward, the water authority says this could save county customers $2 billion over the next 45 years. It could also recoup a huge sum during the next phase of the trial, which will consider damages owed by the MWD.

Topping the list of covert actions are at least three surreptitious efforts mounted by the MWD and its allies over the past 20 years to discredit and undermine the county authority.

The most recent came in 2012. Documents released earlier this week after a public records legal battle show that Eastern Municipal Water District, a Riverside County member agency of MWD, plotted an elaborate, $15,000-a-month public-relations campaign to make the county authority here look petty “on behalf of MWD and its member agencies” — with the blessing of “Jeff,” a reference to MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger.

This is appalling. But even after its rocky week — true to its arrogant reputation — MWD won’t admit it’s done anything wrong.

The district plans to appeal and views the ruling as just another chapter in a long, far-from-complete legal battle with the San Diego County Water Authority, said spokesman Bob Muir. He also said MWD had “nothing to do with” the Eastern Municipal Water District’s proposal to besmirch the county authority. Muir dismissed the idea that the newly released documents showed otherwise.

And so Southern California’s water war will go on. But in coming years, Judge Karnow’s ruling may be remembered as the bad guys’ Waterloo.

We don’t think it’s provincialism that leads us to see the county water authority as the good guys in this fight. After the MWD sharply cut county supplies during California’s terrible 1991 drought, the county authority — like a responsible institution — sought additional supplies. Ever since, the MWD — like a villainous bully — has tried to make the agency regret that decision.

This week, at least, the villains have gotten their due.

The San Diego County Water Authority was represented by Keker & Van Nest attorneys John Keker, Dan Purcell, Warren Braunig, Dan Jackson, Audrey Hadlock and Nick Goldberg.