Last week, an 89-year-old pipe burst in the Hollywood Hills, releasing at least 100,000 gallons of water that flooded the streets, cracked sidewalks and submerged cars. It was another reminder that the city's aging water infrastructure is increasingly at risk of failure. About 20% of pipes were installed before 1931, and nearly all will reach the end of their useful lives in the next 15 years. The Department of Water and Power has a plan to accelerate pipeline replacement but needs more money to do the work.
Also last week, city officials were scrambling to save an agreement between the city and the politically powerful leader of the DWP employee union. The deal was supposed to let Controller Ron Galperin audit two nonprofit training and safety institutes that have received $40 million in ratepayer funds over 10 years but have provided virtually no accounting of how the money has been spent. The auditors were supposed to have "unfettered access" to financial records of the institutes — which are run jointly by the DWP and the union — but were not allowed to make photocopies. A dispute about whether the auditors were taking too many notes, however, has stalled the audit since mid-December.
The lack of transparency is deeply troubling. Ratepayers deserve to know where their money went. The city must not back down in its battle to open the books. But the fight over the audit should not distract L.A.'s political leadership from the massive, expensive and much-needed effort to upgrade the water system.
There is a tendency in City Hall to postpone difficult decisions. The City Council and previous mayors have frequently delayed or reduced proposed rate increases — sometimes rightly so, other times for political purposes — resulting in an enormous backlog of repairs. The DWP dropped plans for a rate hike in 2012 and had to scale back its infrastructure goals as a result. Mayor Eric Garcetti delayed a rate increase last year after problems with the utility's new computer system generated inflated bills.
This spring, the DWP is expected to propose a water rate increase to help pay for a five-year, $2.2-billion plan to modernize the city's pipes, pumping stations, reservoirs and aqueduct. But there are rumblings that City Hall officials might use the delayed audit as an excuse to put off the rate hike. Their argument: We need transparency about the money spent on the institutes before asking ratepayers to pay even more.
But that's wrong. The DWP needs transparency and investment. The mayor and City Council must ensure accountability for ratepayers' dollars and adequate funding to keep the water flowing. Besides, the fight to block the audit is likely headed back to court, and could drag on for months or years. In the meantime, Angelenos will continue to see streets flooded as old pipes crack. L.A. can't afford to fall further behind on basic infrastructure upgrades.