Wieder’s Water Committee Looks for Wellspring of Public Support

Times Urban Affairs Writer

In California, whiskey’s for drinking and water’s for fighting about!

--Mark Twain

As she made final preparations to be host to a Sacramento dinner reception for state legislators last month, Orange County Supervisor Harriett M. Wieder learned that few of the lawmakers would stay past the cocktail hour because of other political events around town.

One by one, elected officials attending the hotel reception for the Southern California Water Committee peeled off until only a handful remained.


“I thought we had cleared the calendar for our event,” Wieder said. “Perhaps we were too naive.”

During dinner, Wieder screened a 14-minute, $50,000 film about California water issues. Some of the water district, county and corporate officials viewing the documentary had helped pay for it. But they did not realize that the fast-paced video would have only limited public distribution because narrator-newsman Boyd Matson has an exclusive contract with NBC, thus precluding use on other networks.

It was a somewhat rocky Sacramento debut for the water committee, but Wieder made the best of it.

She joked with dinner guests that nearby farms were inundated from recent rains and thus “they’re probably dying to give us all the water we want, right now.”


Surveying the crowd, she added: “You’re the glue that holds us together.”

In just two years, the nonprofit organization chaired by Wieder has drawn praise from Gov. George Deukmejian, the state water resources director, Sacramento lobbyists and other officials for its efforts to educate the public about Southern California’s water needs.

Created by Wieder with the help of the Irvine Co., the group has grown to include members from eight Southern California counties, including boards of supervisors and city councils. The group has a paid staff and an Irvine office, and it recently adopted a $391,000 budget.

In recent months the organization has begun seeking financial support from private industry, and it is also selling annual memberships to individuals, water districts and local governments.

Yet, it has not all been smooth sailing. The nonprofit committee’s legal inability to support or oppose proposed water projects has angered some politicians and has prompted some paying members to wonder what they’re getting for their money.

Additionally, some environmentalists and Northern California officials fear that the committee’s hidden purpose is to resurrect the Peripheral Canal, a proposed water project that was overwhelmingly defeated by California voters in 1982. The canal would have diverted some Northern California water around the Sacramento River Delta to Southern California.

As a result, Contra Costa County Supervisor Sunne Wright McPeak, a longtime Wieder political rival in the statewide county supervisors’ association, has formed a Northern California committee to counter Wieder’s group.

Wieder, however, has been conciliatory and has announced plans to meet with McPeak’s group later this year. “What we need is a stable source of supply (water) for every part of the state,” she told her Sacramento dinner audience.


Still, some observers question Wieder’s credibility as a spokeswoman on water issues.

Last October, she held a press conference in Los Angeles to attack Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s state water proposals for stressing conservation rather than increased supplies. Many observers viewed Wieder’s action as a political faux pas resulting from her partisan Republican background.

Deukmejian Appointments

Formerly a Los Angeles resident, Wieder was an aide to Los Angeles Mayor Sam Yorty, whom Bradley defeated in 1973. More important, Wieder is on Gov. George Deukmejian’s reelection committee and is a Deukmejian appointee to several state advisory boards and commissions. Bradley, a Democrat, is seeking to unseat Deukmejian this year.

Thus, while all eight Southern California counties and nearly two dozen cities have each paid $10,000 and $750, respectively, to join Wieder’s group--as have most water agencies, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power--the City of Los Angeles has not.

Lou Smallwood, the committee’s executive director, said that the organization “got off on the wrong foot” with Los Angeles but that she now believes Los Angeles will join the group.

“We recently spent 45 minutes talking to Mayor Bradley, to tell him what we’re all about, and he listened well, I feel,” she said.

However, when asked if Los Angeles may become a water committee member, Tom Houston, Bradley’s chief of staff, asked in turn, “When does Wieder’s chairmanship expire?”


Houston added that Bradley applauds the committee’s educational efforts, but believes that it may be too interested “in another big ditch (canal project). . . . The (Los Angeles) City Council is still studying it, so we’ll see what happens,” he said.

Forgot Ayala

Wieder and her committee have also been criticized for ignoring key legislators.

The group, for example, had no political contact with state Sen. Ruben S. Ayala (D-Chino) until Ayala became agitated and complained to Dennis Carpenter, Orange County’s paid Sacramento lobbyist. Ayala chairs the Senate’s influential Agriculture and Water Committee.

The senator said he now supports the Southern California Water Committee’s educational efforts, but added:

“I was very unhappy with that organization. They were holding meetings and inviting people to come and speak to them, but they didn’t bother to invite me, the chairman of the (Agriculture and Water) committee.

“Now, I’ve never been one to be vindictive, but I do have the authority . . . to kill or sidetrack just about any piece of water legislation in my committee if I don’t like it.”

Ayala, a supporter of Bradley’s gubernatorial bid, had equally harsh words for Wieder’s attack on the Los Angeles mayor.

“If I was the mayor, I wouldn’t want to join (Wieder’s group) either. . . . That attack by Wieder was a bad move. At lunch with her and Carpenter, I told her I was disappointed in her. It was so unnecessary to attack him so fiercely when it was really all over a nothing issue.”

Goal of Leadership

Wieder said her criticism of Bradley was not based on partisan politics, explaining: “I felt that he was misleading people about the nature of the water crisis, and it was necessary for someone to set the record straight.”

The Orange County supervisor said she has been attempting to “demonstrate leadership” on water issues because “our children and our children’s children depend on it for the life style they’ll have after we’re gone.”

In the $50,000 videotape “Water: California’s Future,” Wieder appears briefly following a message from Deukmejian.

“I believe that it is vital that the public be made aware of the potential economic crisis that can befall our state unless we do something about the way we manage and conserve our water supply,” Wieder says in her taped segment, continuing:

“Fifty-six percent of the tax dollars generated throughout the state comes from eight Southern California counties, and that translates into over $108 billion in tax revenue. Less water to Southern California will only mean less dollars to the state treasury.”

Wieder has said the committee’s key role is education, noting that the public must first know more about water issues before officials can seek votes for specific measures. The Peripheral Canal proposal died, she said, because the public wasn’t knowledgeable.

MWD’s Analysis

Metropolitan Water District Manager Carl Boronkay agreed, noting that a 1983 survey commissioned by the giant Southern California water district showed that the Peripheral Canal project failed in part because Southern Californians believed there was already a sufficient supply of water and were not much concerned about future supplies.

The survey also showed that more than half of the 1,506 respondents knew nothing about the loss of up to 60% of California’s take from the Colorado River to Arizona, water now being diverted by the Central Arizona Water Project. Only 68% said they knew anything about the proposed Peripheral Canal despite a $6.3 million campaign waged by proponents and opponents.

It is not surprising that Wieder’s committee focuses on these issues. Committee membership is dominated by development-oriented corporations and agencies such as the Irvine Co., Fluor Corp., Signal Landmark Inc., John D. Lusk & Sons, the Baldwin Co., C.J. Segerstrom & Sons, Regis Homes, the Newhall Land and Farming Co., Atlantic Richfield Co., General Telephone, Glendale Federal Savings & Loan, various chambers of commerce and the Metropolitan Water District.

Many of these entities financed or at least tacitly supported the ill-fated Peripheral Canal project. The Irvine Co. alone spent more than $100,000 on behalf of the canal proposal in 1982. Subsequently, the firm provided seed money and an office to Wieder’s committee.

Robert Shelton, an Irvine Co. political and community relations consultant, said Wieder came to the firm and “identified for us the fact that in Southern California, the people who are concerned with securing an adequate water supply were just talking to each other. . . . Californians don’t have a very high understanding of the water issue.”

Shelton said the company, which owns a sixth of the land in Orange County, is not helping Wieder’s committee solely because it’s in the land development business. “The company’s perspective is much broader than that. . . . The Irvine Ranch is not an island,” he said.

Tax-Exempt Status

Wieder stressed that the water committee is not a political group. She noted that it cannot support or oppose any measure or candidate without losing its status as a tax-exempt, educational organization.

However, Metropolitan Water District Manager Carl Boronkay, who believes a canal project will be resurrected, said Wieder’s group can be effective without taking a position on any water proposal.

“I’m a lawyer, so I know that you can tell your story without appearing to advocate,” he said. “The committee can point out the pluses and minuses (like the League of Women Voters).”

Even though Wieder’s group is not required to disclose its finances, as would a political action committee, the group recently revealed that it adopted a $391,270 budget for this year. About $80,000 is expected to come from county memberships at $10,000 each, while other memberships are counted on to supply another $277,000.

Spending plans include $141,000 for staff salaries and fringe benefits, with the rest spread among equipment, contract services, and costs such as a water symposium held in Los Angeles last week and addressed by U.S. Sen. Pete Wilson (R--Calif.).

The symposium drew 200 people, most of whom, Wieder said, had never been in the same room together to discuss California’s water problems. Panelists discussed a variety of programs, including suggestions that Southern California finance the purchase of financially depressed farms in the Sacramento Delta to obtain the farmers’ water rights.

Public Opinion

At Friday’s symposium, Wilson said it was time that somebody like Wieder put a group like the water committee together--even if the organization cannot legally lobby for various programs.

“There are enough people out there who can do the lobbying,” he said. “What is really needed is for the public to gain an understanding. . . . I recently saw some studies that show that Los Angeles will be the largest U.S. city by the turn of the century. It’s not a question of liking it. It’s going to happen. And the two things we need most to handle growth are water and transportation.”

Friday’s symposium was the second in a series, with one planned for each of the eight counties that have joined SCWC: Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Imperial, Ventura and Kern.

“It’s been a lot of running around, contacting people, sitting down with them to explain our purpose, and we’re still getting off the ground,” said Smallwood, the group’s executive director. “But I can see real progress. Each county is getting organized. We’re on our way.”