A recent audit of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power by City Controller Wendy Gruel criticized the agency for its lack of transparency. The DWP, she concluded, has "lost the trust of the public."
And why shouldn't the public have lost trust? Long before the DWP's recent fight with the mayor and City Council over rate hikes, the agency had ceased to inspire confidence. The utility burned through nine general managers in 10 years, during which time maintaining the status quo was a much higher priority than moving the City forward. No wonder DWP's popularity currently resides somewhere between the DMV and BP.
Even though the DWP is finally beginning to embrace the mayor's ambitious and commendable goals of weaning the city from the use of coal and dramatically increasing its renewable energy portfolio to 40% by 2020, it has dragged its heels on other issues — particularly where water is concerned.
So let's consider something radical: Perhaps the DWP simply has too big and complex a job. The city should separate water and power into two departments. Few issues are as important to the well-being of our region as water. And as the effects of climate change on the Sierra snowpack and the increased demands of a growing population put ever-increasing stress on the water supply, the city deserves better than efforts of the DWP. The utility has a dismal record on providing local sustainable sources of water from water recycling, aquifer management and rainwater capture. Even its basic management of water supply infrastructure is underwhelming. The DWP's pretty good record on water conservation cannot alone move the City to sustainable water management, The City still imports far too much Sacramento Delta and Colorado River water from the Metropolitan Water District — at considerably higher expense than local supplies and a far greater environmental cost.
The example of water recycling particularly illustrates the problem. The city's Bureau of Sanitation produces high-quality reclaimed water at three of its four treatment plants, yet only a minute fraction of that water is reused, in large measure because the DWP fails to coordinate with other city agencies. As a result, only about 1% of the city's water supply is from recycled water. Compare this with Orange County and the Inland Empire, which rely on recycled water for 20% or more of their water supplies. DWP progress on increasing the use of recycled water has stalled at a time when new technologies such as microfiltration and reverse osmosis have addressed even the most irrational toilet-to-tap fears.
The underlying problem in all of this is that responsibility for water management in Los Angeles is split between two agencies — the Department of Public Works and the DWP — with very different missions and approaches. As a result, coordination of infrastructure projects and integrated watershed management efforts is inefficient and especially ineffective for water recycling and storm water capture. Putting all water issues under one roof would mean that sewage, storm water, flood control, water recycling, conservation efforts and drinking water could be managed in concert, which would produce far greater efficiency.
The good news is that some city agencies are moving ahead even as the DWP dawdles. The city's Department of Public Works, for example, has made great strides in removing pollutants from sewage and dry weather runoff, while at the same time moving forward on storm water pollution prevention efforts and green infrastructure projects to augment groundwater supplies and enhance flood control. For example, Public Works has crafted the Low Impact Development ordinance pending in the City Council and has designed and is constructing numerous rainwater capture projects under Proposition O, the city's watershed protection bond.
Given Public Works' effectiveness and proven commitment to a sustainable watershed management approach, it would be logical to move responsibility for managing all the city's water needs to that department. The department already manages flood control, storm water and wastewater, so adding responsibility for water supply is a logical extension of its mandate.
Massive reorganizations are never easy, especially in a city as complex and bureaucratic as Los Angeles. But the environmental and economic benefits would be worth the headache. As California's water crisis intensifies, a stable water supply will become more important than ever. A phased-in transfer of responsibilities from the DWP to Public Works could be achieved by 2015, and could in the end save the city money.
Mark Gold is the president of Heal the Bay.