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SDCWA persists in water cost war

REGION — Though working on diversifying its water supply sources, SDCWA (San Diego County Water Authority) will remain reliant on the supplier it is suing over water costs. 

The Metropolitan Water District (MWD) is the primary supplier of imported water for six counties in Southern California, San Diego County included.

For decades, MWD has provided the vast majority of the water that SDCWA flows into the county’s homes and businesses.

In 1991, MWD supplied 95 percent of the county’s water, with the rest coming from local water sources.

In recent years, the SDCWA has realized the potential cost and supply dangers of depending on one source for such a vital resource.

Speaking before the Carlsbad City Council on Dec. 3, the chair of the SDCWA Board of Directors Thomas Wornham emphasized how SDCWA has focused on diversifying its water supplies.

SDCWA has spent $2 billion over the past 10 years to develop a variety of water sources, desalinated seawater from the forthcoming Carlsbad Desalination Plant and other local sources among them, Wornham said.

But MWD still remains SDCWA’s primary water provider. Today, the MWD supplies nearly half of the water SDCWA distributes throughout the county. Payments to MWD make up 80 percent of SDCWA’s water costs.

Over recent years, SDCWA has become concerned by the rising costs its major supplier has been charging.

“We don’t have much control over how (MWD) allocates the cost,” said SDCWA General Manager Maureen Stapleton.

SDCWA began to clash with MWD when it arranged to purchase water from the Imperial Irrigation District but have the water delivered through MWD’s pipes.

Authorities at SDCWA believe that the agency is being overcharged by MWD for transporting the water from the Imperial Irrigation District, according to Stapleton.

“We believe they are overcharging us by $57 million alone this year,” she said.

With 16 percent of this year’s water supply coming from the Imperial Irrigation District, SDCWA filed a lawsuit against MWD in 2010 asserting that the supplier was overcharging for the water delivery.

The case will go to trial Dec. 17.

Statements from MWD contend that SDCWA is attempting to undermine the supplier’s regional cost-share model for San Diego’s exclusive benefit.

“SDCWA’s lawsuit seeks to avoid paying its share of maintaining this transportation system — at the expense of the system’s other users,” read a statement from MWD’s legal department about the lawsuit.

Wornham said that assuming that the ruling from the Dec. 17 trial is appealed, the legal battle with MWD should conclude by 2016.

Despite the lawsuit and its efforts to diversify its water supply, SDCWA has no choice but to rely on MWD for a significant portion of the county’s water supply for the foreseeable future.

By 2020, MWD will remain SDCWA’s primary water supplier, providing an estimated 30 percent of the county’s water.

“There is a place for (MWD) in our portfolio, but we need to make sure that we have, via diversification, our future in our hands,” Wornham said.