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High-stakes vote nears in California water wars

SAN DIEGO — The website displays a clock counting down seconds to Tuesday's board meeting of Southern California's major water wholesaler.

It is part of a new front in California's water wars opened by the agency that purchases water for San Diego and its suburbs. The San Diego County Water Authority launched the website last month to attack the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, its largest supplier, saying it wanted to lift a veil of secrecy. The site offers a trove of internal documents obtained under California's public records law, including references to a "Secret Society" and an "anti-San Diego coalition."

Metropolitan, a Los Angeles-based agency that counts San Diego as the largest of its 26 customers by far, votes on a budget Tuesday that would raise rates 7.5 percent in 2013 and 5 percent in 2014, a move that San Diego says would hit the nation's eighth-largest city and its suburbs disproportionately hard. San Diego wants to limit annual increases to 3 percent.

Metropolitan defends its practices and has demanded San Diego remove Metropolitan's defaced seal from the new website, The seal is altered to read, "The Truth About the Metropolitan Water District of So. Cal."

Government agencies often fight in and out of court, but the online war of words is unusual.

"I found this to be unprecedented in my 25 years of working in public agencies," said Jeffrey Kightlinger, Metropolitan's general manager. "I'm a lawyer. I've done a million lawsuits, many of them public agencies to public agencies ... I've never seen anything quite like this."

The bad blood dates back to a drought in the early 1990s when San Diego began a drive to become less dependent on Metropolitan. Dennis Cushman, the San Diego agency's assistant general manager, said the region then got 95 percent of its water from Metropolitan and now gets less than half.

As with many water disputes in arid stretches of the West, this one is just as much about how to move water from one place to another as it is about the water itself. San Diego lacks its own water supply and — just as importantly — doesn't own pipes to get it from somewhere else.

In 2003, San Diego agreed to buy a big chunk of its water from California's Imperial Valley in the nation's largest farm-to-city water transfer. It still needs Metropolitan's 242-mile aqueduct to carry the water from the Colorado River.

The same year, Metropolitan introduced a rate structure that levies one fee for transporting water and another for the water itself. The San Diego agency alleges the transportation fee includes lots of unrelated costs, amounting to San Diego subsidizing other agencies that buy water directly from Metropolitan. Its claim is the basis of a lawsuit filed in 2010 in state court that says the new system is stacked against San Diego.

With the lawsuit not yet scheduled for trial, Metropolitan is slated to consider two years of rate increases Tuesday under a system that San Diego says is deeply unfair.

Metropolitan, whose customers include cities and water agencies serving 19 million people in six counties, defends the new rate structure and accuses San Diego of trying to unload costs on others. It suggests San Diego overpaid for Imperial Valley's water and is trying to make up for a bad business decision.

The stakes are so high that many Metropolitan member agencies began meeting in 2009 to discuss San Diego's challenge to the rate structure and other issues. San Diego says it didn't learn the group existed until after a request for public records last October that has produced more than 60,000 pages of documents.

The San Diego County Water Authority says the documents show the group met up to 60 times and alleges that members coordinated votes with Metropolitan's board of directors, which would potentially violate the state's open-meetings law. The documents show the group paid for advice from a consulting firm that employs Ron Gastelum, a former Metropolitan general manager.

Two emails from one participant — Chris Theisen, assistant director of public works for Beverly Hills — refer to the group as the "Secret Society." Handwritten notes from one meeting mention the "anti-San Diego coalition."

San Diego packaged the documents in thick binders and sent them to reporters throughout California under the heading, "Who really runs the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California? A shadow government takes control."

The tone of its website is highly irreverent. One entry challenging Metropolitan's spending practices ends with a dig: "Stubborn things, facts are."

Metropolitan says there is nothing unusual about staff from member agencies getting together to discuss issues. In addition, it adamantly denies the group is a forum to coordinate board votes. In a letter to the U-T San Diego newspaper, Kightlinger dismissed references to a "Secret Society" as a tongue-in-cheek jab at what he called San Diego's outlandish legal claims.

San Diego swiftly dismissed Metropolitan's demand to remove its altered seal from its website, saying it was protected free speech.

"We're communicating publicly what they kept private — and successfully kept private — for more than two years," said San Diego's Cushman. "We need to do the public's business in public. It's really quite an appalling story when you look at it."