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A Pipe Dream to Bring Colorado River Water to San Diego Re-Emerges

In the latest sign of how far local officials might go to become water independent, Water Authority board leaders are asking the agency to study a plan to build a multibillion-dollar pipeline to the Colorado River.

The San Diego County Water Authority, tired of paying a middle man to deliver water from hundreds of miles away, is starting to cast out for ideas once written off as laughable.

One board member has even suggested San Diego may consider building a pipeline of its own to the Colorado River.

The pipeline would give the Water Authority a chance to accomplish a long-held goal: breaking a monopoly held by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the region’s largest water supplier and the owner of the only physical connection San Diego has to the Colorado River.

But it would be among the most expensive, disruptive and ambitious projects ever built in the region. That it would even be discussed reveals how intense the rivalry between the Water Authority and Metropolitan has become.

For years, Water Authority leaders have argued Metropolitan charges too much to deliver Colorado River water to San Diego. If the Water Authority had its own pipeline, it wouldn’t have to pay Metropolitan’s delivery fees, which may amount to $6 billion in coming decades.

That and other disputes with Metropolitan have driven an increasingly wide range of discussions at the Water Authority about what it can do to become “water independent.” In the latest sign of how far officials might go, Water Authority board leaders are asking the agency to consider “any and all options” to increase water reliability and hold down costs.

The Water Authority’s staff is now looking at pipeline plans, though it’s unclear how seriously the agency is taking the idea, but staffers will present their findings at a special Sept. 14 board meeting.

“What would a pipe cost? It’s a crazy idea – don’t me wrong, don’t get me wrong – but we want to look at all ideas,” Jim Madaffer, the Water Authority’s vice chairman, said in an interview last week. He said he and two other board leaders asked the agency to look into the pipeline.

If a pipeline to the Colorado costs less than $6 billion, maybe it’d be worth it.

The Water Authority has studied pipelines before, most recently in 2013. At the time, it estimated the project could cost between $2.7 billion and $3.2 billion, depending on which of two routes the pipeline took.

Both routes start at the San Vicente Dam near Lakeside and then run 80 or 90 miles east into Imperial County. There, San Diego’s pipe would connect to the existing All-American Canal. That canal, the largest irrigation ditch in the world, was built to carry water west from the Colorado River into Imperial County. From the air, it appears as a fragile blue line through the desert.

Since at least the 1930s, San Diego water officials have toyed with plans to connect to the Colorado via the All-American. Instead, for a variety of reasons, the Water Authority joined Metropolitan, which built the Colorado River Aqueduct that opened in 1941. Metropolitan has controlled urban Southern California’s access to the river since.

But San Diego never lost its taste for the Colorado, without which modern San Diego would be impossible. The Water Authority has, if anything, increasingly relied on the Colorado in recent years, even as it’s become clear there’s not enough water to support all the farms and cities that now surround the river.

Two decades ago, the Water Authority made a big bet on the Colorado. It agreed to buy a big chunk of water from the Imperial Irrigation District, an agency that has more rights to the river than anyone else. Most of the water in Imperial is used for farming. The Water Authority also paid to reinforce two canals in Imperial in exchange for the water that would have otherwise seeped out of those canals into the ground. About 39 percent of San Diego’s supply is now Colorado River water that once flowed in Imperial.

But the Water Authority still has no way of getting that water to San Diego without using the aqueduct owned by Metropolitan. The two agencies disagree on how much Metropolitan should charge to deliver most of that water. That disagreement helped set the stage for a long-running legal and political battle.

In June, the Water Authority faced a major setback. The 1st District Court of Appeal found Metropolitan is, by and large, charging the Water Authority a fair price for Colorado deliveries. (The Water Authority appealed the ruling to the state Supreme Court, which has yet to announce whether it will take the case.)

The Water Authority worries it will face ever-rising delivery fees if its loss becomes final.

Those worries helped prompt Water Authority leaders – Madaffer, board Chairman Mark Muir and board Secretary Gary Croucher – to ask General Manager Maureen Stapleton to look again at the pipeline idea in preparation for an October board retreat.

“If that really is how high they are going to get, then what would it cost to build a pipe and pay the debt service?” Madaffer said, referring to estimates of Metropolitan’s rates.

Madaffer also said he’d like to know if the Water Authority could somehow buy water from Northern California without relying on Metropolitan. He also wants to know what it would take for the Water Authority to be able to store water behind the Hoover Dam, something Metropolitan and the Imperial Irrigation District can do but that the Water Authority cannot. Those sound like simple ideas but each would create enormous upheaval in the small, set and territorial world of California water.

Muir, the board chairman, said he’s not sure what, if any, of those ideas the Water Authority will actually try to make happen.

“It’s premature to speculate about the Board’s level of interest in any particular option related to future QSA transfers,” he said in an email, using an abbreviation for the deal with Imperial. “Staff will provide us with updated analysis of a potential conveyance structure to the east at a special Imported Water Committee meeting on Sept. 14 and we’ll continue to consider it as one of many possible strategies.”

This makes it hard to tell if the Water Authority’s pipeline talk is serious, exhaustive due diligence or perhaps even simply posturing as a series of big deadlines fast approaches.

First, the Water Authority must soon decide if it wants to keep buying Colorado River water from Imperial County. The deal is set to continue through at least 2047, but the Water Authority has the option this year of ending the deal a decade earlier. The water it buys from Imperial is expensive and one of the reasons San Diego has some of the highest water rates in the country. If the Water Authority concludes the deal is too expensive, it may walk away.

Second, the Water Authority will have to take a firm position in coming weeks on the governor’s plan to build underground tunnels in Northern California. Those tunnels are meant to help ensure water keeps coming south from the north’s rivers. Madaffer said he loves the idea, but he just doesn’t want San Diegans to pay for more than their fair share of the project.

Following a drought that Metropolitan was unprepared for in the early-1990s, the Water Authority began a series of expensive projects that increased local reservoir capacity and promoted the construction of a privately owned desalination plant. All told, the projects amount to billions of dollars in new spending that the Water Authority believes prepares it for an unpredictable water future.

“I think the board of the Water Authority owes it to the next 30 years to see what we can do to provide ratepayer protection and improve water reliability,” Madaffer said.

If the pipeline becomes a serious proposal, environmental opposition could be intense. That battle would probably resemble or exceed the pitched opposition to the Sunrise Powerlink, a 116-mile electrical transmission line that San Diego Gas & Electric built through Imperial County and into San Diego.

For instance, one route the water pipeline might take would require the construction of a 41-mile underground tunnel, part of which would run beneath the Laguna Mountains and Cleveland National Forest. Another route requires water from Imperial be pumped nearly a mile uphill from below sea level to San Diego, a feat that could require $136 million a year’s worth of electricity just to power the pumps.

There could also be significant opposition from water agencies in other states that depend on the river and are leery of seeing another hand in their Colorado cookie jar. Water agencies in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah and Wyoming are already worried there’s too little water in the river for too many people.

On the other hand, unlike a new pipeline officials in Utah are proposing, San Diego’s pipeline would not be a new straw directly in the Colorado, because the water would still be routed indirectly through the existing All-American Canal.

But such indirect access is also why San Diego could remain geographically boxed in even if such a pipeline is built. The All-American Canal is owned by the federal government and operated by the Imperial Irrigation District. Like Metropolitan, Imperial has the right to charge delivery fees for water that flows through it. Because there is deep suspicion in Imperial about coastal cities like San Diego coming to their farming county to take their water, they might try to drive a very hard bargain.

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