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The Politics and Power of Water

The Politics and Power of Water
San Diego has 24 different agencies that manage the county's water supply. We'll talk about the politics, power and control of the region's precious resource.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. In California, water is power and, of course, just about everywhere power translates into politics, so saying that decisions on water use and water cutbacks in San Diego are political is not ignoring the environmental necessity; it's just acknowledging a fact of life. For instance, the reason that the 24 different water agencies in San Diego County differ in the way they've decided to handle water cutbacks may have as much to do with politics as it does the environment. And while we're on the subject, why are there 24 different water agencies in San Diego? To answer these and other important questions surrounding the nexus of power politics and water, I want to welcome my guest, KPBS political correspondent Gloria Penner. Good morning, Gloria.

GLORIA PENNER (KPBS Political Correspondent): Good morning, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let's start where the tap begins. Where – Turn on the tap, where does San Diego's water come from?

PENNER: Well, more than 70% of this region's water comes in from the Colorado River and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. There is the California aqueduct that comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and it goes to Lake Paris in Riverside County. The water originates in the Sierra Nevada mountains and runs off into the Sacramento River. I mean, you've heard about the snow melt, are we going to have a good snow pack this year? And if we are, will it turn into snow melt, and will that start filling up the aqueduct? So it's Colorado River and the delta, but about 11% of our imported water comes from – Well, let me put it this way: All but 11% of our water is imported, and the rest actually come from local sources.

CAVANAUGH: Well, there's nothing political about the snow pack but every drop of water, I've heard it said, in California has somebody's name on it. Somebody's controlling this water.


CAVANAUGH: And down here, the major agency of control in Southern California is the Metropolitan Water District. Tell us about that.

PENNER: Yeah, and that was a – That's a coalition of water agencies and there are lots of them. And that was formed way back in 1928. The Metropolitan Water District is now bigger than 34 states and has $3.3 billion in physical assets, more than any other public agency in California outside the state legislature. That gives you an idea of the power. The Met—that's what they call it in water circles—it buys water from the State Water Project, which operates that California aqueduct that I was telling you about, and then it sells it to our county water authority and to its other members. So let me just finish up.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah, sure.

PENNER: In the role of wholesaler, the Met sells this water to like 14 cities, 12 or more municipal water districts—I always say 'or more' because it seems to me another one's popping up all the time—and San Diego's County Water Authority.

CAVANAUGH: Now, okay, so it gets down to the San Diego County Water Authority…

PENNER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …and this year the Metropolitan Water District told the San Diego County Water Authority that it was going to cut back the amount of water it was going to give it. So San Diego County Water Authority said it was going to cut back the amount of water it was going to give to its 24-member agencies.

PENNER: Not exactly give, my dear.



CAVANAUGH: …sell, sorry.


CAVANAUGH: Well, you're – very important point.


CAVANAUGH: Now why are there so many different agencies in San Diego County?

PENNER: Well, first of all, let's look at the agencies before I back up into…


PENNER: …that answer. You're right, the county water authority is a collective of 24 districts, which includes the County of San Diego, Camp Pendleton, the cities of San Diego, Del Mar, Escondido, National City, Oceanside, Poway and a plethora of other local water agencies. Some of them were developed because it's agricultural area and they wanted control over the water that comes to their agricultural areas, others were developed because the cities are charter cities and they can have their own water agencies. And this was an evolution, I mean, not a revolution. Slowly, slowly over the years, more and more water agencies developed. And, you know, like legislation or bills or the old sausage thing, it may not be pretty to watch but the end result is it seems to work.

CAVANAUGH: Now you just explained how all these different water agencies sort of developed and cropped up and so forth but when you have so many different agencies, does that mean every single one of them is a power nexus when it comes to water?

PENNER: Yeah, because some of them actually own their own local supplies. For example, the City of San Diego owns nine lakes, from Morena Lake near Campo to the Miramar Reservoir. The Helix Water District owns Lake Cuyamaca and Lake Jennings. The Julian Community Services District serves its members exclusively by pumping local wells. So this does give them a lot of power. And they do have different mandates, different motivations and different populations that they serve, and that really changes the texture and the character of each water agency. Some of them have their boards appointed, some have their boards elected, and so that also makes a difference in terms of who has the power. You know, an elected board, you have to go to the people and you have to convince the people that what you stand for is what the people want. For example, you may get candidates who support conservation, reclamation, desal. You may get candidates who are concerned or not concerned over environmental matters. You may find that it's very hard even to get a clue what the candidates stand for because water board candidate forums are virtually nonexistent.

CAVANAUGH: Right, I would imagine. Well, until this year when water's become such a big issue, I would imagine that there were few people who even knew there was so many county – water agencies in the county. But let me ask you, one of the criticisms and one of the reasons this has come to the fore is because it seems that all the county water agencies, the 24 different agencies, member agencies of the San Diego County Water Authority…

PENNER: Right.

CAVANAUGH: …have decided to do something just a little bit different when it comes to water conservation.

PENNER: Yeah, well, I checked that out and it's true. For a while there, it really looked as though they even had a different interpretation of what the drought alert Level II meant. But it seems to me just checking around, speaking to people at the Water Authority, that they're all starting to come on board with kind of a flat approach. In other words, they're saying, okay, well, you can't wash cars or wash down the sidewalk or serve water at restaurants unless requested, and they're limiting outdoor watering to certain days and times. Now it is true that, in some cases, they're saying, okay, starting in the winter – continuing through the winter, you can only water three times a week on specific days. But that isn't true of all of the water districts. Mt. Helix, for example, is going to go to one day a week during the winter months rather than three. And so a lot of it really has to do with where they're located. In the drier areas, they may have to water a little more often to keep whatever lawns they have left intact and in the wetter areas, like Mt. Helix, maybe once a week will be enough. So, yes, there are changes. Other changes really have to do with water rates, and that's always a big bone of contention. You know, are you going to increase my rate the same as you're going to increase my neighbor who has a lot more land? And, again, I go back to Helix; in the case of Helix, they've decided that they're going to do a flat, across the board increase of somewhere between 21 and 24% no matter what the size of your property and no matter how large a family. That's very different from the tiered increases that some of the other districts have put into effect.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line who'd like to join the conversation. Angela is in Carmel Valley. Good morning, Angela, and welcome to These Days.

ANGELA (Caller, Carmel Valley): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I have two things I'd like to say. The first thing is, you know, I believe that water is a right. It should be a right for everyone just as healthcare is a right, just as education is a right. I don't understand why all these agencies have been able to set themselves up in the first place. The second thing is that it sounds to me like, just like the mortgage crisis with the problems of deregulation are the same kind of problems that we're having with our entire water system. You know, having all these separate different rules and different ways of electing or not electing or being appointed to these different water agencies has proven and shown us now that it's not being regulated properly. They're not having the proper kinds of policies in place that – to deal with this emergency. And, yes, we should have actually mandated that everyone have succulent gardens instead of grass since like 1990. So that's all I'd like to say.

PENNER: Well, you know, truthfully, Angela, democracy is not neat and clean and it's really hard to mandate in a democracy. I would say that there's a certain labyrinthine aspect to the way that the water agencies are organized but power is very hard to give up. And when you have a water district, that gives you power because water in a dry area, in an arid area, is power. And so we can't really expect them to say, okay, I'm going to relinquish this agency and blend in with another for the sake of uniformity. That isn't going to happen. But remember, they all sit, they all have representatives on the San Diego Water Authority board. In fact, San Diego has 10 representatives, the City of San Diego, that's the biggest amount, and all are appointed, by the way. They're appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the city council. So there's a lot of power there. And then let's go up a level. So there you have the board of the San Diego Water Authority, they establish policy, and, you know, whether the different water districts follow that policy or not is questionable. But when you go up, you go up to the Metropolitan Water District, which controls all the imported water in Southern California. There, San Diego Water Authority has the most representatives on the board, they have four.

CAVANAUGH: And I don't want to leave this conversation, Gloria, before I talk to you just a little bit about the whole idea of how finding new sources of water, desalination, recycled water, is now also becoming a political issue…

PENNER: Oh, believe me.

CAVANAUGH: …here in San Diego.

PENNER: Yeah, I mean, just take that old awful term 'toilet to tap,' which persists, sticks in people's heads, and really turns your mind against the possibility of using reclaimed water, which is the largest source of water that we have. It originated—a little history—with a guy named Gerald Silver, who was an angry Encino homeowner's association president. He used the term in 1995 during a debate and, immediately, that term was picked up by opponents to the whole idea, which included City Council member—then, City Council member—George Stevens, Assembly member Howard Wayne, and former San Diego City Council member Bruce Henderson, and once they picked it up, it became a political fireball. So, yes, water is – what – it can become inflammatory, it can become fiery, and the same is true now of not only reclamation but desal. Luckily, though, desal looks as though it's moving along.

CAVANAUGH: And I think that you told me all of San Diego's congressional delegation support desalination, correct?

PENNER: Yes. Yes, they came out about a year or so ago and all of them said that we approve the idea of desalination. As I said, it's expensive, uses a lot of energy, but it looks as though – I mean, there we have the sea at our fingertips and the brackish water, the salty water, our groundwater, all of which might be converted into fresh drinking water or at least water for our 60 or 80% of outdoor landscaping that we do.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly. We're going to be talking about outdoor landscaping right after this segment, Gloria, and I also want to remind our audience that we will be talking in depth about the subjects of water recycling and desalination tomorrow morning as part of our week-long series on water conservation reports. I want to thank you so much for talking to us about what, I dare say, is sort of a nerdy topic.

PENNER: Well, nerdy for you maybe but not for me.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much, Gloria. I appreciate it.

PENNER: You're welcome.

CAVANAUGH: Stay with us as we talk – we – our water wise conversation continues and we talk about the new look of San Diego landscaping. That's coming up next on These Days.

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