Keeping L.A.'s taps flowing

What's the most reliable source of water in Los Angeles? Your kitchen tap, your bathroom shower, even your toilet.

Reservoirs rise and fall, the Colorado River ebbs and flows, the snowpack recedes and expands, but customers of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power can still count on water flowing to their homes. At least for now.

In 2008, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa released a visionary plan for ensuring the future reliability of the water supply by moving Los Angeles away from its reliance on imported water. In an average year, the DWP purchases more than half the city's water (some 115 billion gallons) from the Metropolitan Water District, which imports it from the Colorado River and the Sacramento River delta. The DWP imports another third of the city's water from the Owens Valley and Mono Basin. Only a paltry 1% of L.A.'s supply currently comes from recycled water, a mere fraction of the water recycled by Orange and Los Angeles counties.

The goals in the mayor's plan were reasonable and achievable. Moderate water gains would come through conservation, recycling and storm water capture. The San Fernando Valley aquifer would be cleaned up so that its groundwater could be better utilized. If followed, the plan's prescription would result in enough water to supply nearly half a million people per year by 2020. Our dependence on imported MWD water would be reduced by nearly 30%.

The catch is that we have to follow the plan. The city has made some major strides on conservation, in large part thanks to restrictions on yard watering and economic incentives for water-efficient appliances and machinery. But we haven't really begun to implement major components of the plan because DWP leadership hasn't made them a high priority.

Recently, the DWP released its proposals for a water rate hike. Raising rates is never popular, and the reaction of the anti-tax, anti-government crowd was predictably negative. But environmentalists are also seething about the plan. Why? Because the city's need to wean itself from imported water is being treated as a green "option" rather than as an integral part of the utility's and Los Angeles' future.

The DWP is making the case for about a 16% rate hike for both power and water because current rates don't cover expenses. But even this increase won't fund the necessary investments in water sustainability outlined in the mayor's plan. The DWP describes water conservation, storm water capture and water recycling as "extras," saying that because they're not essential, the City Council should decide whether to fund them. Even then, the water sustainability measures being proposed are far more modest than the mayor's 2008 plan, with significant water goals deferred until 2035.

Moving toward an integrated, local approach to water will ultimately ensure a more sustainable and reliable supply. The cost of MWD water is certain to soar in coming years — by as much as 40% by 2020. And there are also major environmental benefits to be derived from moving toward a more local supply. Rainwater capture and filtration, for example, not only yields water, it reduces storm water pollution and leads to better flood control. Investment in green water-supply infrastructure is essential and long overdue, and the costs will only continue to rise if we defer them any longer.

We can't return to the old approach of assuming we can simply grab water from somewhere else to meet our needs. DWP General Manager Ron Nichols and his department have an opportunity to change the city's approach by aggressively investing in green infrastructure. Will this take a rate increase? Absolutely. And it will need to be substantially more than the current proposed increase.

But Nichols needs to explain to the city how, in the long run, the investment will pay off with a more reliable water supply with less volatile pricing. Also, Nichols and the DWP need to explain to customers that water rates will really go to paying for water and can't, by law, go toward paying for police, fire and other general fund costs.

The proposed rate hike probably won't be voted on by the City Council until a new rate advocate is hired and has a chance to review the DWP's proposal, so there is time to fix the plan. The final rate plan should be one proposal that includes funding for a more aggressive approach to making the overdue transition to responsible water management. Then, rather than indulging in their favorite pastime of bashing the DWP like a pinata, the City Council must boldly vote to invest in building local water resources that will bring true water supply reform.

In the long run, as the price of imported water continues to rise, these measures will be highly cost effective, and they will be good for Los Angeles and California.

Mark Gold is president of Heal the Bay.

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