Docs: Secret PR campaign targeted San Diego water ratepayers

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego County Water Authority claims its water wholesaler, the Metropolitan Water District, participated in a public relations campaign aimed at convincing San Diego County ratepayers to accept years of overcharges.

In February, a San Francisco County Superior Court judge ruled that the Los Angeles based Metropolitan Water District (MWD) overcharged San Diego more than $1 billion for water transportation. A lawsuit filed by the San Diego County Water Authority (SDCWA) demands the money be refunded.

Hundreds of public records detail a PR campaign paid for by Riverside's Eastern Municipal Water District (EMWD), but approved and authorized by MWD leadership, according to San Diego water officials.

"For this notion that ‘Met’ had nothing to do with this, the documents really speak for themselves," SDCWA Assistant General Manager Dennis Cushman said. "They don't support that story line."

A contract obtained in a public information request found that, starting in August 2012, Riverside's EMWD paid $15,000 a month to a PR firm. The contract states that the goal is to influence "15-20 key stakeholders in the San Diego area on behalf of MWD."

"It’s disgusting behavior for public officials," Cushman said.

EMWD and SDCWA are two of MWD's member agencies. Cushman said all other member agencies benefit by San Diego being overcharged.  He said it is why a seemingly random water agency would target San Diego for a public relations blitz.

"Eastern was carrying out these activities on behalf of Metropolitan and its member agencies," Cushman said.  "I don't believe this community is going to wake up tomorrow, or a year from now, and say, 'gosh those folks from Metropolitan sure are good guys looking out for our best interests."'

Spokesmen for MWD and EMWD denied collusion. MWD spokesman said emails showing MWD officials meeting or discussing the PR plan only prove they were aware of it.

"That plan was designed by EMWD to provide a more balanced representation and dialogue in San Diego County on regional and statewide water issues - including those impacting EMWD customers," a statement from the MWD said. "The completed EMWD plan was presented to staff at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Metropolitan chose not to entertain the suggested plan.

Cushman said one email from the EMWD general manager proves MWD was pulling the strings.

"First I want to thank you again for all your work on the MWD public and governmental relations plan," the email read. "It was very well received by Jeff and other key member agency general managers and we will continue to work with MWD on its implementation. Great job."

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