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Ron Kaye: Balancing conflicting interests in water war

March 19, 2012

Don’t kid yourself, people will kill, or risk being killed, for just about anything of value. They’ll take that risk for money, for land, for gold, for diamonds — even for water.

Water, more than anything in our desert climate in Southern California, has long been at the heart of bloody fights, from the earliest days of settlement to “Chinatown” and the rape of the Owens Valley until today, when the water wars are only figuratively bloody. But a lot of people still get hurt.

Southern California’s latest water war escalated in the last week — sweeping in Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena and other nearby communities — when the San Diego Water Authority accused 20 of the 26 agencies that make up the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California of operating as a shadow government that calls itself the “Secret Society” and operates in the dark to its own advantage.

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Last week, San Diego water officials released 500 emails that show how a clique of officials representing a majority of votes have met in secret 60 times over the last three years — an issue that has led to calls for an investigation by the state attorney general for violation of the state’s open meeting law.

The question San Diego posed at last Tuesday’s public meeting on this issue was whether the Metropolitan staff would offer a list of possible budget cuts before the vote next month on rate hikes of 7.5% next year and 5% the year after.

Water is a precious commodity these days, but Burbank wasn’t there to vote. Pasadena’s Timothy Brick voted to support the call for possible cuts in what many would say is a lot of questionable spending, and so did Glendale Mayor Laura Friedman.

“I’m always willing to look at cuts,” Friedman explained. “I believe all public organizations need to be looked at closely and transparently … I think we have a responsibility to the ratepayers.”

Drawing on Colorado River rights and Sacramento Delta supplies, Metropolitan provides half the water to the nearly 20 million people in six Southern California counties. It decides how much water is available, how much it costs, and manages a lot of less obvious rules that can save some agencies tens of millions of dollars a year — or, in the case of San Diego, cost them tens of millions.

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