Encinitas, Calif. — Olivenhain Municipal Water District’s Board of Directors unanimously voted at its November 17 meeting to refund $1.62 million to customers to reduce the impact of future water rate increases. The refund resulted from lawsuits filed by San Diego County Water Authority in 2010 and 2018, challenging the legality of Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s water rates and charges and seeking payment for legal damages and interest.
Thirty-five years ago, California voters approved a landmark law meant to halt exposure to dangerous chemicals in drinking water and everyday products like food, flip-flops, and face shields.
Decades later, the water cases are few and far between—while hundreds of product lawsuits bring in millions of dollars annually for plaintiffs’ attorneys, some of whom represent environmental groups focused only on this law.
The Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986—commonly known as Proposition 65— came into being during Ronald Reagan’s time as president, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was slashing regulations and loosened enforcement of pollution standards.
Environmental and community groups have sued a California county after the prime oil-drilling region approved a plan to fast-track thousands of new wells in a state that’s positioned itself as a leader in combating climate change.
The city of Escondido is being sent a rebate of $1,754,023 by the San Diego County Water Authority, of which Escondido is a member agency. The Rincon Del Diablo Municipal Water District, which also serves parts of Escondido, was sent a rebate of $630,781. This week the Water Authority’s Board of Directors voted to distribute a rebate of $44.4 million to its 24 member agencies across the region after receiving a check for that amount from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to pay legal damages and interest.
San Diego is ready to start building the long-awaited Pure Water sewage recycling system, now that city officials have resolved litigation that delayed the project 18 months and increased its estimated cost to $5 billion, city officials say.
Pure Water will boost San Diego’s water independence by recycling 83 million gallons of treated sewage into potable drinking water by 2035.
All regulatory permits have been secured and construction bids are being opened and analyzed for the 10 projects that will make up Pure Water phase one, a large treatment facility slated to open in 2025 near Miramar that will be connected to many miles of pipeline in the northern part of the city.
The San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors today announced a plan to distribute a rebate of $44.4 million to its 24 member agencies across the region after receiving a check for that amount from the Los Angeles-based Metropolitan Water District of Southern California to pay legal damages and interest.
The money resulted from the Water Authority’s decade-long rate case litigation in state Superior Court seeking to compel MWD to set legal rates and repay overcharges. The Water Authority won several critical issues in cases covering 2011-2014 and was deemed the prevailing party, which means the agency is also owed legal fees and charges in addition to the recent damages and interest payment from MWD.
The court rulings will also help avoid future overcharges and thereby minimize future disputes over MWD’s unlawful Water Stewardship Rate for transporting the Water Authority’s independent water supplies through MWD facilities. Those charges – if they had continued – would have cost San Diego County residents more than $500 million over the life of the Water Authority’s water delivery contract with MWD.
“A long time coming”
“This day has been a long time coming,” said Water Authority Board Chair Gary Croucher. “We never wanted to litigate these issues – but if we had not had the courage to do so, MWD would still be collecting the illegal fees and we would not have money to give back to local retail water agencies across the region.”
Per today’s decision by the Water Authority’s Board, the $44.4 million will be returned to member agencies in proportion to their overpayments between 2011-2014. The Water Authority does not have a say in how member agencies use the refunds. The amount of legal fees and costs owed to the Water Authority is yet to be determined.
In addition to damages and interest, the rate case lawsuits generated other substantial benefits, such as requiring an increase in the Water Authority’s preferential rights to MWD water by approximately 100,000 acre-feet a year, equivalent to about twice the annual production of the $1 billion Carlsbad Desalination Project.
In February 2020, the Water Authority’s Board of Directors voted to dismiss certain issues from the litigation after securing more than $350 million in local project subsidy benefits for the San Diego region. In doing so, the Water Authority acknowledged the MWD Board action to stop imposing its Water Stewardship Rate for transporting the Water Authority’s independent supplies, thus resolving for now that issue in future rate years.
As the lawsuits wind down, the Water Authority is working collaboratively with MWD member agencies across Southern California to update MWD’s long-term water resource and financial plans. MWD’s Integrated Resources Plan, known as the IRP, will be the agency’s roadmap for the future. The Water Authority is advocating for inclusion of updated data and plans by many MWD member agencies to develop local water supplies such as the Water Authority and its member agencies have done over the past two decades and will continue to do in the future.
The Biden administration is swinging the pendulum of repeated changes to water regulation back to expanding after those regulatory powers contracted under President Donald Trump.
But the swing isn’t likely to be permanent, legal scholars say.
Amid long-term forecasts indicating California could be headed into another dry winter, discussions at the California Farm Bureau Annual Meeting focused on current and future water policy and the challenges facing short- and long-term supplies.
During a breakout session as part of the virtual Annual Meeting, Ernest Conant, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation regional director for the California-Great Basin Region, described how regulatory constraints have affected water allocations from the federal Central Valley Project.
Major environmental litigation is set for an abrupt shift after President-elect Joe Biden steps into the White House, as the Trump administration leaves behind a trail of unanswered legal questions. In four years, President Donald Trump and his appointees in the Environmental Protection Agency, Interior Department, and other agencies made dramatic regulatory changes that sparked an ongoing series of legal battles.
Attorneys for farmer Michael Abatti on Monday filed a petition requesting that the California Supreme Court take up a case against the Imperial Irrigation District, continuing the battle for control over California’s Colorado River water allotment.
This latest filing calls on the court to rule that Imperial Valley farmers have a right to water ownership, which currently resides with the district.