As Department of Water and Power officials contemplated replacing miles of old pipe after a dramatic break flooded a Studio City neighborhood last weekend, two City Council members Tuesday criticized DWP managers for backing a $50-million pay hike to settle a strike when the water network was in need of costly repairs.
“Instead of giving pay raises, we should have been replacing water pipes,” Councilwoman Laura Chick said.
“Why weren’t DWP executives in here asking us for $50 million to spend on repairing water pipes?” an angry Councilman Joel Wachs said. “They should be spending money on this, not lobbying for a pay hike.”
Chick and Wachs, who both represent the San Fernando Valley, have been critics of the DWP pay hike approved by the City Council after a nine-day walkout by 11,000 DWP workers.
Wachs voted against the final settlement, while Chick voted for it. However, Chick said she argued in the closed-door negotiating sessions against a pay hike until it became futile. “My position was always that we shouldn’t give a pay hike, but it became moot when they had eight votes,” the majority needed to ratify a contract, she said.
But Jim Wickser, chief engineer of DWP’s water division, argued that withholding the DWP pay hike would pay for only a small share of the cost of replacing or rehabilitating the city’s aging water system.
Moreover, council members have exaggerated the salary savings windfall if no pay hike were awarded, Wickser said. Only $15 million in new wage hikes will go to water division workers, Wickser said, and only that amount could, if not paid in salary increases, be used on water-related capital programs.
Meanwhile, DWP officials said Tuesday that they have accelerated a study to determine how to prevent water breaks such as the one Saturday that also created a gaping crater, closing Coldwater Canyon Boulevard to traffic.
Officials said they had begun such a study in the wake of a major water trunk break in Sherman Oaks in 1991.
“We’re going to have a draft plan ready fairly soon,” said Wickser. “We’ve been working on this since the Ventura Boulevard break in 1991, but we’re accelerating it because of this latest incident and at the mayor’s request.”
Targeted by the study are 67 miles of large, riveted pipeline that are at least 30 inches in diameter and are a major part of DWP’s trunk line system. Both the 1991 break and the Studio City incident occurred along that line, much of which is 60 or more years old, Wickser said.
Replacing all 67 miles would cost $250 million, the water division chief said.
However, the DWP study now under way will seek to identify those portions of that pipeline network that are most at risk, and then propose corrective programs to focus first on replacing the most imperiled pipeline segments.
The DWP has found that Saturday’s break was not due to the corrosive effects of water inside the pipeline but to corrosion caused by so-called “hot soil” in which the pipe is buried. Wickser said hot soil generally contains more clay and is finer in composition.
“We need to look at soil conditions along this 67 miles, take some tests and develop a plan to find the areas where there’s the greatest risk and replace pipe there first,” Wickser said.
Already, the DWP study has identified 41 miles of the pipeline that are located in “severely corrosive soil” along 20 trunk lines.
Tuesday, at a regular meeting, Wickser and water division officials briefed the DWP board on Saturday’s break and informed the board members of the study.
“I think there’s a great deal of concern about so much old pipe,” Wickser said. “Like any aging system, we’ve never had the money to keep it up.”