Lakewood Seeks Coalition of Cities on Water Issues


City officials have decided to launch an ambitious effort to give Lakewood and other Southeast cities more clout with federal, state and local agencies that have authority over the area's water supplies.

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to try to organize a coalition of up to 20 cities stretching from the Whittier Hills to Long Beach, including Downey, Bellflower, South Gate, Compton, Paramount, Montebello, Norwalk and Cerritos.

The coalition is the centerpiece of the city's "water resource management strategic plan," designed to preserve the quality and supply of its water, 95% of which comes from wells.

The coalition--an idea Lakewood must sell to its neighbors in the Los Angeles County Central Basin--would represent the cities' interests before the myriad of public agencies that make decisions about water, such as the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the State Water Resources Control Board, and the Central and West Basin Water Replenishment District.

"This is an issue that relates directly to the quality of life in Southern California," said James L. Easton, the consultant Lakewood hired last year to help draw up a plan for safeguarding the city's water.

Lakewood officials already have informally approached a few neighboring cities, and the response has been positive, said James B. Glancy, the city's director of water resources. Now that the council has adopted the strategic plan, Glancy added, the city can formally begin an organizing effort.

In South Gate, the director of public works and engineering, Rollie D. Berry, said that Lakewood's call for a coalition is an excellent idea. "There's really no coalition among (the cities) to make their wants and needs heard through a common voice," Berry said.

South Gate had to close six of its 14 wells because of contamination from industrial solvents and recently issued $14.7 million worth of bonds to pay for their cleanup, Berry said.

Lakewood and other cities want to maintain an adequate supply of good water for their residents, Easton said, but they cannot do that if the supply is threatened by events that happen along a river bank in Northern California or in a factory in Monrovia.

"Aquifers don't know city boundaries," said Councilman Marc Titel, referring to the underground storage areas that move water and toxins miles from their origins.

It has been determined by state and federal agencies, for example, that ground water underneath the Central Basin cities is threatened by toxins that were left in the ground decades ago by industries in the San Gabriel Valley.

One of the largest toxic plumes, Easton said in an interview before the City Council meeting, has collected in the Whittier Narrows at the intersection of the 605 and 210 freeways, and it will slowly move southward.

"This plume is pointing just like a gun at the Central Basin," said Easton, who is vice president of Willdan Associates, a statewide engineering and planning firm. He also is the former executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board.

The site has been designated for cleanup by the federal government, but that will cost from $600 million to $800 million, Easton said. The federal government says it does not have money to pay for the cleanup, but a regional coalition of cities, he suggested, could begin lobbying federal and state lawmakers to raise the money.

Lakewood's strategic water plan also calls for lobbying the state and federal governments to hire more staff in agencies that are responsible for identifying polluters and prosecuting them.

"Preventing (pollution) is a lot less expensive than cleaning it up," Easton said.

Another critical element in Lakewood's plan is to encourage the use of reclaimed water--sewage water that has been treated and is used for watering landscaping. Cerritos, Lakewood and several other cities in the Southland already sell treated water to large users such as school districts and industrial parks.

The plan also calls for the city to support the construction of the Peripheral Canal, which would transport water from Northern California rivers to Southern California.

Lakewood is believed to be the first city in the state to take such an active stance on water issues, Easton said.

What made the city decide to champion the water issue?

"We asked ourselves the same question," Titel said. "And I guess the answer is that nobody else is doing it."

Titel, along with Councilman Robert Wagner and City Administrator Howard L. Chambers, was on the ad hoc committee the City Council set up last year to study water issues and come up with the strategic plan. The council on Tuesday converted the ad hoc body to a standing committee.

Lakewood, Titel acknowledged, is a relatively trouble-free community that prides itself on addressing critical issues before they become big problems. "Because there aren't a lot of problems, our staff is not fighting fires all the time. It allows our staff to be creative and think about problems like this," he said.

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