In split vote, San Diego County supervisors wade into hotly debated water dispute

Workers wearing hoodies clear dead plants from a parched, sun-blasted hillside.
Workers clear out dead Leucadendron plants at the Resendiz Brothers Protea Growers farm in Rainbow in December 2021. As soaring water rates forced some farms to slash irrigation, the Rainbow and nearby Fallbrook water districts moved to break away from the regional water authority.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Jim Desmond was the lone supervisor to withhold support for state legislation that would require a region-wide vote on any effort to break from a regional water authority


San Diego County supervisors have formally weighed in on a contentious — and increasingly costly — plan by two rural water districts to break away from a regional authority they say is too expensive.

The county board voted 3-1 this week in favor of a recommendation from Supervisor Joel Anderson to support state legislation that would require approval by a majority of all voters within the regional water authority — rather than only those residents of a breakaway district.

“This process would allow water customers of all (San Diego County Water Authority) member agencies to decide what is best for our region’s water future and the potential implications of their own water bills,” the former state senator told his board colleagues.

Anderson was joined by Supervisors Nora Vargas and Terra Lawson-Remer in supporting the recommendation, which carries no specific authority in the California legislature. Supervisor Jim Desmond opposed the plan.

The vote came as the state legislation, introduced by Assemblymember Tasha Boerner Horvath, D-Encinitas, was moved into what’s called the suspense file — a list of bills expensive enough to require vetting by the appropriations committee before they can proceed.

Litigation is planned to stop districts from getting cheaper water elsewhere, ‘detachment’ elections are moving ahead, and a notable hire has raised eyebrows

Aug. 20, 2023

Assembly Bill 399 will have to be revived in the last days of the current legislative session if it is to make it to the governor’s desk and become law.

While the letter from Anderson to his board colleagues did not specifically mention the Boerner Horvath bill, the implication was clear.

The East County supervisor said county water authority members should not be able to withdraw from a broader group of water districts through a ballot measure limited to their own constituents.

Leaving the regional authority would unfairly stick fellow districts and their ratepayers with long-term capital costs, he said.

Desmond, whose North County district includes the Fallbrook and Rainbow water agencies trying to secede from the county water authority, said he could not support the recommendation put forward by Anderson.

“As a local government, the county should be a champion for local control,” he said. “This board letter is a terrible idea for local control.”

Desmond noted that county water officials raised rates again this past June.

“If the ratepayers within a respective water district vote in favor of detachment, they should be able to do it,” he said.

The updated proposal would raise monthly rates for a typical single-family homeowner to $93.55 instead of $103.06. Those customers now pay $81.07 per month.

June 21, 2023

The board letter from Anderson is the latest development in a long-running grudge match between the county water authority and the two farm-focused water districts that serve the Fallbrook and Bonsall communities.

Officials from the Fallbrook Public Utility District and Rainbow Municipal Water District have worked for years to break from the county water authority, complaining that the water they buy is too expensive.

They plan to join the Eastern Municipal Water District, a sprawling agency that delivers water to nearly 1 million customers across some 560 square miles of Riverside County.

In July, the local board that oversees official boundaries for municipal agencies across San Diego County voted to allow the Fallbrook and Rainbow applications to break away from the county water authority.

In a split decision by what’s called the Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO for short, the breakaway passed 5-3.

Last month, county water officials filed a lawsuit in San Diego Superior Court against LAFCO and the Fallbrook, Rainbow and Eastern Municipal agencies, accusing them of improperly interfering in the authority’s long-term decision-making.

“This is a fundamental and unprecedented action by LAFCO, second-guessing the water authority board of directors’ authority to make regional water-supply decisions in place for decades,” the lawsuit asserts.

The two North County water districts got the go-ahead to join a Riverside County-based water system, which they say would cut rates for their customers.

July 10, 2023

Among other things, the water authority’s lawsuit asks a judge to order LAFCO to vacate its approval of the Fallbrook and Rainbow requests to withdraw from the regional water agency.

Defendants in the litigation have yet to formally respond to the allegations. A hearing has been set for late October to determine how the case will proceed.

The Boerner legislation is expected to be taken up by lawmakers after the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The bill will either be brought forward and voted on by legislators or stored in the suspense file, where it would be effectively rejected.