Clouding the Future of Affordable Water

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It's hard for even dogged observers to make sense of the tangle of agencies -- each its own little government -- that manage the water flowing from our taps. There are three of these oversight districts in Los Angeles County whose general obscurity has become their cover for shenanigans like these affecting the cost of water to consumers.

The district boards are elected, but voters have never shown much interest in who the members are. Their missions overlap so much that two of the districts once shared the same small office, and all three had the same staff. Water industry old-timers ran the districts until the 1990s, when their untapped potential for pay, patronage, and perks was discovered.

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The prize may be small in L.A. City Council or even state legislative terms, but to be a board member of one of these districts has an old-fashion sweetness. There are no term limits, for example. Aside from the perks of office, there are contracts to be let to political friends, jobseekers to be patronized, squabbles to be fought, and coups to be counted.

Confusingly, the water districts don't deliver water. That's the responsibility of cities, private water companies, and other local water purveyors. The oversight districts monitor the ebb and flow of water in Los Angeles County, buy water in bulk from other suppliers, and charge local water purveyors -- not consumers -- for their services.

Passing district costs through local water purveyors gives board members perfect insulation from complaint when they hike rates unreasonably or spend unwisely.

There is widespread suspicion that these boards have become perches for termed-out state legislators seeking light work and junior members of political families waiting their turn. There is good evidence that board members, knowing how fast water turns into money, have developed ambitions to get more and buy political influence. The districts have been audited by the state legislature for their spending practices. They've had to defend their more questionable claims in court.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District is a particularly instructive example. Not long ago, the state senate overwhelmingly adopted a measure to prohibit the district from managing the storage of water in the underground aquifers from which many cities in the county draw all or some of their water. The measure is meant to corral the district and keep it from poaching on the turf of the Water Replenishment District, which has a state mandate to put water back into the aquifers when cities pump it out.

Central Basin has been criticized in recent years for all sorts of oddities. The Los Angeles Times wondered why Central Basin gave at least $70,000 to a phony news service to plant stories about the district's good works. There's the district's $22.6-million reclaimed water system that doesn't have many customers and very little rationale, since Central Basin is supposed to be a bookkeeper not a water supplier. The local purveyors chafed at the cost because they have to pay it but had no say in how or why the reclaimed water distribution system was built. And now the district attorney is looking into the board's travel expenses, which seem startlingly generous.

Stung, Central Basin is lashing out in the most peculiar way. It's suing its critics for libel.

As a long-standing principle under the 1st Amendment, governments have no legal immunity from criticism - even malicious criticism - and such suits are very rare, almost never tried in court, and nearly always backfire.

According to District Attorney Steve Cooley (as quoted in the Times), "This strikes me as an incredibly bizarre and unusual move from a public entity. If this became a widespread practice, it would have a chilling effect on whistle-blowers and others who seek to assure good and honest government."

But not so bizarre, given the politics of Central Basin. As the Times reported, the suit follows a series of anonymous emails that questioned why the district approved a $965,855 contract with a company called HydroPoint, abruptly changed its mind, rebid the contract, and ultimately awarded it to another company called Water2Save.

The Times suggests that there was a political reason for flip-flopping:

Tom Calderon, a former state Assemblyman, holds a consulting contract with Water2Save, which has identified him on its website as both a "Director of Governmental Affairs" and "Board Director." Calderon is also a consultant to Central Basin, under an agreement that pays him about $140,000 per year. His two brothers, who are both in the state Legislature, have helped support the district in Sacramento.

That's the way business is done in the murky world of these special districts and all of it affecting the cost that consumers pay for their water..

D. J. Waldie, author and historian, writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus and 1st and Spring blogs.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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Excellent article. Hopefully, change and accountability is coming to Central Basin as the incumbents who are largely responsible for the shenanigans referenced in your piece, are replaced by candidates with integrity.