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Tapped-Out Cities Push Back Against New Water Rates

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Turn on the bathroom tap, and water pours out (more tightly regulated than the stuff in plastic bottles). Where the water comes from is a mystery for most consumers (who presume their tap is connected somehow to Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway and the movie Chinatown). If consumers contemplate anything as the sink fills, they may think of aqueducts, dispossessed ranchers, and the size of their water bill.

They never think of the several regional governments - most with elected boards - that oversee the complex plumbing of Southern California: aqueducts of course, but also spreading grounds, injection wells, waste water reuse, and the layers of aquifers that lie hundreds of feet beneath their bathroom floor.

This plumbing is pretty well known to the water engineers who make use of it, even the buried parts, the parts that rely on the obscure flow of the Los Angeles River out of the San Fernando Valley and the passage of rain and snowmelt under the Los Angeles basin. But how best to manage the plumbing remains uncertain.

In much of Los Angeles County, where most of the water supply comes from underground sources, compacts among water pumpers - overseen by a court-appointed Watermaster - have kept the system in balance: so much water extracted from wells, so much replaced from rainfall, processed wastewater, and water brought from Northern California and the Colorado River.

These compacts have begun to fracture along institutional lines that are hardening into political frontiers. It's true that population growth and water scarcity have put upward pressure on water costs. And new requirements for water treatment and pollution control now have to be factored into water rates. But the politics of water management have begun to add even higher costs to the rates consumers pay.

Safe seats on water district boards are home to termed-out legislators and politically connected power brokers who see revenue streams for their districts and patronage in dispensing construction and management contracts for water projects. Insulated from public view and unlikely to be unseated, board members are able to impose higher water rates on cities, who then pass the costs on to consumers.

Some cities have rebelled and refused to pay higher costs they say were imposed illegally. Pico Rivera, Signal Hill, Bellflower, and Downey collectively owe the Water Replenishment District of Southern California about $8 million in unpaid pumping fees. The replenishment district says the cities must pay while the court decides on the legality the district's fees. The cities say that they have already won once in court and expect to win again. They don't want to drain their tapped-out budgets paying into an escrow account while the court decides this latest case.

In fact, there are five suits over water rate setting that are making their way through the court system already. The cities want these cases combined into a single action that would deliver a definitive judgment.

Given the degree of animosity and confusion in the management of the water supply, the state has now stepped in. An audit of the special districts that oversee the region's water delivery system is underway to determine if management of the system is structurally unsound and to answer why consumers in different parts of the basin pay wildly different rates for the same water.

The audit, begun in March, should be finished in early 2013.

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