Opinion L.A.

New DWP head Marcie Edwards is ready to tackle conservation challenges

For decades, the DWP kept the lights on and the water flowing, and we didn't worry our pretty heads about it

The DWP that Marcie Edwards started working for as a teenager is a different creature now, because California has become a different place.

How she came to head the largest publicly owned utility in the country is a good tale of how women began to get, and to make, opportunities that weren’t possible before.

Edwards’ father, who worked on the power side of the Department of Water and Power, dropped her off at City Hall when she was 19 and said: “You don’t know what you want to do with your life, so until you figure it out, get a city job so I don’t have to worry about you.”

That job was as a DWP clerk. One day a group swept through her office, offering an introduction to  “non-traditional jobs for women.” She asked what in the heck was a non-traditional job? “Get in the van, we’ll show you,” one fellow said.

They toured steam plants and electric substations that kept the lights on, staffed by people in coveralls, not skirts and blouses. At the end she asked, "What do those jobs pay? And he said, 'About four and a half times what you make.'"

"A whole different world opened up for me as far as the kinds of work and my capabilities," Edwards told me in an interview for my "Patt Morrison Asks" column.

"The first time there was a fire, I asked the control room operator, 'What do I do? Where do I evacuate to?' And he looked at me and said, "You’re the firefighting squad, baby.'"

During the 1994 Northridge earthquake, she remembered her father’s advice from the ’71 Sylmar quake, to get on the phone and get the work started while the ground’s still shaking.

So she summoned a helicopter to soar over the broken freeways to get her and four other systems operators to work. “I slept in a supply closet for days. And 98% of that grid came back in 24 hours. Once you do a full-scale blackout, the electric grid doesn’t scare you that much.”

I got the sense that not much of anything scares Edwards. The job of running the DWP, which has chewed up and spat out seven male execs in the last decade, she calls "fun," adding, "I think it’s going to work out.”

Those are some hopeful words in the age of drought and climate change, as water and power agencies find themselves having to change their message, if not their mission.

For decades, they kept the lights on and the water flowing,  and we didn't have to worry our pretty heads about it.  And frankly, we weren’t too particular about how they accomplished it --  electricity from coal burned at out-of-state plants, water co-opted from a fertile valley some 200 miles away. Don’t tell us how you do it, just keep it coming.

Now agencies accustomed to making long, slow battleship turns in policy will have to do bootlegger U-ies. It's a tall order, not only providing water and power, but getting us to be aware of it, to conserve it.

California isn’t a model place to do this.  My colleague Bettina Boxall wrote about the state’s long-standing practice of handing out water rights that add up to fivefold the amount of the state’s actual water runoff. If you or I sold the same car to five different people, we’d be in the pokey. California has juggled its water resources in such a higgledy-piggledy fashion for so long that it’s hard for us now to realize where we are standing in the long line for water; we all have gotten used to thinking we hold ticket No. 1.

Follow Patt Morrison on Twitter @pattmlatimes.

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