Cities, Water Disrticts, Courts: The System Springs a Leak

Sitting Ducks
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As Sam Allen of the Los Angeles Times recently reported, The Water Replenishment District of Southern California and the Central Basin Municipal Water District -- two of the special districts that manage water for millions of Los Angeles County residents -- are locked in a costly and prolonged conflict over who will oversee - and benefit from -- the storage of water in the underground aquifers beneath the Los Angeles Basin.

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Their battle raises a much larger question. As the Times noted:

The conflict offers a window into the highly decentralized world of water operations in Southern California. Across the region, hundreds of different public agencies are involved in the purchase, sale, distribution and delivery of water to residents. Many of them overlap in their service areas and functions, and most operate under little public scrutiny. The size and complexity of the network can make it difficult to match increases in residents' water bills to specific expenses incurred by the districts.

The replenishment district and the central basin district don't deliver water to anyone. They aren't "pumpers" in the language of the water business. Once, they were merely accounting and monitoring agencies that acted in concert, mostly to ensure that underground water supplies were protected from the incursion of seawater, that pumpers drew only their allotted amount of water, and that the water taken out was balanced by water returned to the basin.

Until 1992, the two agencies were a couple of offices and desks for six employees working out of the same modest building in Downey. They did their job adequately and deserved their obscurity. Today, the two agencies have ballooned in size under the leadership of termed-out state legislators and their former aides. Each agency is trying to muscle out the other for the revenue streams and sources of patronage that they see in controlling part of the region's water infrastructure.

The boards of the two districts would make an old-fashion Chicago ward heeler proud: safe seats backed by crony politics, pensions and generous perks for board members, and insulated from angry consumers (since agency fees are passed on to cities and water companies and from them to customers).

It's a system of governance made for big and small forms of mismanagement, if not outright corruption.

I recently wrote about cities that are pushing back against by refusing to pay agency fees they think were imposed illegally. The cities got some relief recently when Judge Raul Sahagun of the Norwalk Superior Court ordered the several lawsuits that entangle this issue to be combined with an earlier case. That, at least, will cut some litigation costs. But it's likely, whatever the outcome, that more litigation will follow.

The battles between the special districts and with cities reveal a system of governance for the region's water that is edging toward political chaos and costing consumers without improving any aspect of water supply. And it's derailing efforts to secure the region's water for the years of drought that will inevitably come.

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

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