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DWP chief helped L.A. manage oil embargo

Times Staff Writer

Robert V. Phillips, a former general manager and chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power whose novel plan to ration electricity helped the city get through the Arab oil embargo in the early 1970s, has died. He was 91.

Phillips died June 28 of heart failure and pneumonia at Huntington Hospital in Pasadena, said his daughter, Jane Phillips Wehrey. Until his health began deteriorating in April, he had lived in Bishop, Calif.

From 1972 to 1975, he oversaw the DWP during a tumultuous time that included the first strike against the department in 30 years and a potentially crippling energy shortage.

“At a crisis moment, Los Angeles had its water and power leader, and it was Bob Phillips. It was a crisis -- and Bob kept the lights on,” said Steven Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor who volunteered to work with Phillips through Water and Power Associates, a nonprofit public-education organization.

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The five-month oil embargo by Arab nations that began in 1973 left the DWP critically short of fuel needed to power its generators. To cope, the department installed a voluntary rationing plan based on historic usage; customers who failed to conserve were fined.

After electricity consumption fell 17%, the precedent-setting conservation plan was seen as a model for utilities nationwide.

Phillips also sought ways to make the DWP less dependent on foreign oil, including participating in a coal-fired power project in Utah that remains a main source of power for the city today, according to Michael Moore, who was Phillips’ executive assistant.

During the 1974 strike by about 7,500 DWP workers, 12,000 customers in Sherman Oaks and Woodland Hills went without power for three sizzling July days. The strike was settled within a few days.

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In a 2002 article in The Times marking the department’s 100th anniversary, Phillips said he had known every head of the DWP since William Mulholland founded it.

As a young boy, he met Mulholland while visiting his engineer father, James E. Phillips, a key Mulholland assistant who was invited to be a pallbearer at Mulholland’s 1935 funeral.

Robert Van Ness Phillips was born Feb. 21, 1917, in Los Angeles. He studied at UCLA and earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from UC Berkeley in 1939 before joining the DWP as a civil engineer.

From 1961 to 1967, he headed the DWP’s aqueduct division, a position his father held in the 1920s. Phillips also was chief waterworks engineer and deputy general manager from 1967 to 1972.

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“He was a towering figure, about 6 feet 6, who cast a long shadow over the DWP,” Erie said. “He was no-nonsense, genuine, and had the courage of his convictions.”

After retiring in 1975, Phillips consulted on projects elsewhere in the U.S. and in Thailand, Egypt and Brazil.

An amateur astronomer who made his own telescopes, Phillips also taught engineering at UCLA.

After his wife, Janie, died in 2003, Phillips moved to the Owens Valley, where he had first worked for the DWP as a part-time surveyor while in college.

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In addition to his daughter, Phillips is survived by a stepdaughter, a stepson and two grandchildren.

Services will be held at 10 a.m. today at Pioneer Memorial United Methodist Church, 157 N. Washington St., Independence, Calif.

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valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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