Southern California’s largest water agency has annexed thousands of acres of mostly dry hillside into its six-county service area and agreed to supply water to tens of thousands of new homes and businesses--even as its water supplies have dwindled during five years of drought.
The continuing expansion of the Metropolitan Water District service area worries some water officials, who argue that it is senseless to promise to supply new areas when there is not enough water to serve the existing 15 million customers. The MWD, they say, should declare a moratorium.
“It’s time to wake up and smell the coffee,” said S. Dell Scott, one of eight Los Angeles representatives on the MWD board. “I don’t see why we should encourage development when we don’t have enough water already. . . . It’s preposterous.”
Some water agencies around the state have barred new water hookups and, in effect, stopped development in the face of tight water supplies. Annexations by the MWD have continued while the agency imposed the most severe restrictions in its 63-year history.
A dozen such annexations gained final or interim approval in December--at the same meeting that the board of directors voted to impose 10% mandatory cuts in water deliveries.
At the January board meeting, when directors voted to impose a 17% overall cut in deliveries to MWD agencies, approvals were given for five annexations totaling several hundred acres.
In February, when 31% cuts in water deliveries were approved, directors approved a request for another annexation.
MWD General Manager Carl Boronkay and his staff say that a moratorium is not necessary because the agency can meet the water needs of annexations. Besides, Boronkay said, “We’re not a growth control agency.”
The recent annexations range from parcels as small as an acre up to more than a square mile. Much of it is raw land slated for development, but one pending proposal seeks to annex the entire Ventura County town of Port Hueneme with its 6,000 homes.
Through 27 agencies, the MWD supplies water to more than 300 communities stretching from the Mexican border to Ventura County, including the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
During the last two decades, lucrative development in the western San Fernando Valley, northern San Diego County, the Oxnard Plain and booming western Riverside County communities such as Murrieta Hot Springs and Temecula was made possible by the MWD agreeing to annex the territory and share its water supply.
Under the agency’s statement of purpose, the so-called Laguna Declaration, the MWD is to provide all the water requested of it by members. Or as MWD director Charles D. Barker put it: “We don’t like to deny anyone anything.”
Under the MWD’s charter, written in 1928, the agency’s purpose is to bring in the water necessary for the economic development of Southern California. The agency, traditionally dominated by business and development interests, has stuck to that mandate from the time it served 13 cities in the Los Angeles area to today, as it provides water for 300 communities throughout Southern California.
But as the state’s water supplies remain low, some directors say it is time to declare at least a temporary halt to new water connections.
Last Tuesday, the board’s five-member annexation committee voted unanimously to delay until May consideration of any new annexation proposals, except hardship cases. By then, directors said, the rainy season will be over and MWD will have a much better idea of what the year’s supply will be.
For now, officials do not believe they have the votes on the full 51-member MWD board to win approval for more annexations. “I think we’d be in trouble if we went to the (full) board with a host of annexations now,” said Barker, chairman of the annexation committee.
Talk of a possible moratorium may explain the rush of annexation proposals during the last few months, officials said. “The drought has engendered a flood” of applications by developers and communities hoping to submit their requests before the district closes the door, said Scott.
On Tuesday, the annexation committee heard but did not vote on proposals for 11 annexations that cover more than 3,750 acres--including the city of Port Hueneme, which is worried about the declining quality of its ground water. That doubles the number of annexation proposals pending before the MWD.
Since the drought began, some other water agencies and cities around the state have refused to make new connections until the drought ends or new sources of water are found.
In Marin County, authorities have imposed a building moratorium at least until water in the reservoirs reaches normal levels. “We just felt that would be fairer to the people who are already here and conserving,” said Lynn Schneider, spokeswoman for the Marin Municipal Water District.
In El Dorado County, officials also have refused to make any new water connections, stalling a dozen developments that would have added thousands of homes.
At the MWD, the idea of limiting service area expansion has gained some support in recent years because population growth has threatened to outstrip the agency’s supply.
In the last two decades, the number of residents in areas served by the MWD has increased by about 50%. While water supplies declined, the population in the district went from 10.2 million in 1970 to 12 million in 1980 to an estimated 15 million now.
The MWD is a wholesaler of water from the State Water Project’s sources on the Sacramento River and water from federal projects on the Colorado River. The MWD provides about 60% of all water consumed in Southern California.
Landowners often seek inclusion in MWD’s service area as an early step in the development process. Without a guarantee of water, it is unlikely that they would receive permits for development.
Those seeking MWD water are required to pay a $3,000 processing fee plus a minimum fee of $832 per acre of raw land, officials said. Developed properties pay higher fees, based on the value of the land. Developers are also required to pay the costs of laying pipe and other connection-related construction.
Smaller agencies and cities often aid the landowners in obtaining MWD water because they want to promote economic growth.
Developers of the Murrieta Springs Mall are seeking a 44.4-acre annexation that they say would provide 1,700 construction jobs and 3,400 permanent jobs. Developer John Haskell said the mall is projected to increase sales and property taxes by $100 million in its first 20 years.
The Eastern Municipal Water District of Riverside County has sought more MWD annexations than any other agency during the drought. Spokesman Peter Odencrantz said that the MWD annexations, in addition to assisting development in the rapidly growing area, help avoid the depletion of local ground water supplies.
The drought--and suburban growth--have caused MWD directors to debate how much control the agency can and should exercise over development.
The MWD by law cannot deny annexations to its original members, including Los Angeles and Pasadena. It can deny annexations to the suburban water agencies where most of the recent growth has occurred.
Last summer, the MWD adopted annexation guidelines aimed at making the new areas as efficient as possible in the use of water. Annexation candidates must now show that they are planning water conservation and use of reclaimed water.
Boronkay said that even with the new guidelines, “the philosophy remains the same. . . . We exist under the law to serve water, not to shape the size of the community by the supply of water.”
Other directors say the new rules are a start, but the MWD must show greater leadership and help put the brakes on development.
“The MWD has to stop pretending that it is not a growth control agency,” said MWD director Timothy Brick of Pasadena. “The MWD is not a neutral servant of growth. It is actually the handmaiden of growth.”
Boronkay argues that the amount of land left to be annexed is insignificant, perhaps as little as a 2% addition to the existing service area. “The potential for burdening MWD is not very great,” said Boronkay.
Brick argues that much of the new territory is in desert-like areas--particularly in Riverside County--where per capita water consumption tends to be high.
Boronkay’s position is supported by a study last June by the MWD staff that concludes that about 110 square miles could be annexed for development in the next 60 years. That area amounts to about 2% of MWD’s current service area.
The study does not include the Oxnard Plain along the coast of southern Ventura County, which is almost certain to be annexed; nor a 20-square-mile section of Santa Susana Mountains that the city of Los Angeles is considering for annexation.
An earlier study, in 1982, concluded that 1,000 square miles of territory could be annexed by MWD--an increase of 20%.
Wiley Horne, MWD planning director, could not explain why the estimates varied so widely. “All I can guess,” he said, “is that the (1982 report) had a more boundless vision of Southern California.”