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Water Politics: Democracy or Labyrinth

Our nation prides itself on the power of the people. Many political philosophers believe that it is public opinion that drives democracy and that ordinary citizens can actually influence the decisions that ultimately shape their lives and their destinies. However, in California, especially in semi-arid Southern California, this may not entirely hold true. Here, it is the control of water that has shaped the destiny of the land and its inhabitants.

It is that control and the power it manifests that are at the root of the maze composed of a jumble of water agencies -- members of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. The behemoth organization, located in Los Angeles, was created in the 1920’s when the region was booming and water was already scarce. Wells and rainfall were inadequate for the rapidly increasing population and businesses. Enter “the Met” which, according to a 15 year old article in the San Diego Earth Times, was bigger than 34 states, and with $3.3 billion in physical assets, it had more than any California public agency other than the state legislature.

It is the MWD that sells water from the Colorado River and Northern California to its 26 member agencies. Now we come to San Diego where one of those member agencies is the County Water Authority which is dependent on the MWD for 80 to 90 percent of its water. Already we can see the huge importance of MWD water to our region. Without it, we would indeed be sporting a blanket of chaparral, the drought-resistant plant that originally covered most of our area.

But the major supplier is seen as the dictatorial Goliath from Los Angeles, although the CWA does wield some influence because it has more members on the MWD board than any other agency. The irony is that in San Diego, we have our own David and Goliath battles because the largest number of board members on the CWA comes from the city of San Diego water agency with 10 members out of a membership of 37 on the CWA board. Those 10 members are appointed by San Diego’s mayor and confirmed by its city council. They are not directly elected by the public, not are the water agency board members of the other five charter cities.

However, some of the San Diego region’s 24 water agencies are elected by the public. The problem here is that although candidates from water districts will appear on ballots, there are almost no water board public forums to learn about whether those potential policy-making water board members support conservation, reclamation, desalination, environmental concerns or none of the above. Do elected or appointed board members agree that water for agriculture should be diverted to the more populous cities? How much effort and investment should be directed to alternative supplies? Is it time to curtail building and business expansion? By the time those core questions are filtered through the huge bureaucracy from MWD to CWA to the tiniest local water district, they are destined to be watered-down and perhaps never answered.

So, back to the premise, that it is either the voice of public opinion that shapes political destiny or, at least in Southern California, it’s who or what controls the distribution of increasingly scarce water. In the San Diego region, that who or what is so structurally complex , we hope democracy is still at work.