There are accusations of conspiracies, illegal secret meetings and double-dealing. Embarrassing documents and e-mails have been posted on an official Web site emblazoned with the words “Fact vs. Fiction.” Animosities have grown so deep that the players have resorted to exchanging lengthy, caustic letters, packed with charges of lying and distortion.
And it is all about water.
Water is a perennial source of conflict and anxiety throughout the arid West, but it has a particular resonance here in the deserts of Southern California. This is a place where major thoroughfares are named after water engineers (Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles) and literary essays (“Holy Water” by Joan Didion, for instance) and films (“Chinatown”) have been devoted to its power and mystique.
Yet in the nearly 80 years since the Arizona National Guard was called out to defend state waters against dam-building Californians, there has been little to rival the feud now under way between San Diego’s water agency and the consortium of municipalities that provides water to 19 million customers in Southern California. This contentious and convoluted battle seems more akin to a tough political campaign than a fight between bureaucrats, albeit one with costly consequences.
At issue is San Diego’s longstanding contention that it has been bullied by a gang of its neighbors in the consortium, able by virtue of their number to force the county to pay exorbitant fees for water. The consortium two weeks ago imposed two back-to-back 5 percent annual water rate increases on San Diego — scaled down, after strong protests, from what were originally set to be back-to-back increases of 7.5 percent a year.
The battle is being fought in the courts — a judge in San Francisco is struggling to untangle a welter of conflicting claims from the two sides — but also on the Internet. San Diego officials have created a sleek Web site to carry their argument to the public, posting 500 pages of documents they obtained through public records requests to discredit the other side.
And they might have struck oil, as it were, unearthing documents and e-mails replete with references to the “anti-San Diego coalition” and “a Secret Society,” and no matter that the purported conspirators contend that they were just being jocular.
“There is a lot of frustration,” said Jerry Sanders, the mayor of San Diego, who has watched from the sidelines as the independent San Diego Water Authority waged its wars. “It’s been building over the years.”
Asked about the tactics, Mr. Sanders demurred. “Whether they are effective or not, I’ll leave that to other people to judge.”
If nothing else, the fight is an entertaining diversion from the kind of bland bureaucratic infighting that usually characterizes these kinds of disputes.