Recently, the Los Angeles City Council voted for three supposed Department of Water & Power reforms:
- Creating an Office of Public Accountability with a ratepayer advocate;
- Requiring DWP’s budget to be submitted earlier, with a guarantee that “surplus” funds will come to the city of L.A. for general fund uses;
- Granting the City Council the authority to remove the DWP’s General Manager or DWP Commissioners with a two-thirds council vote. The council could also override the mayor’s removal of the GM or commissioners with a two-thirds vote.
If the council approves the measures Dec. 7, they will appear on the March 8 ballot. But here’s the deal: These reforms are hardly bold and they don’t begin to solve the numerous inherent problems at DWP. In fact, the ballot measures are a cynical and opportunistic attempt to take advantage of near-universal public distrust of DWP.
The original job description for the new ratepayer advocate position promised real reform. It declared “the role of the OPA shall be to (1) promote efficiency and effectiveness of the department; (2) provide a centralized focus on ratepayer protection and consumer complaints; and (3) provide independent analysis of department actions, particularly as they relate to water and electricity rate actions. The OPA shall advocate against excessive rates and shall provide expert advice on rate actions and strategies which most economically accomplish the City’s policy goals and protect the department’s long-term interests.” But the role has been significantly watered down to the point of ambiguity.
From an environmental perspective, the measures almost completely miss the mark. Of course greater accountability is needed at DWP, but giving the City Council the authority to fire the GM and the commissioners is not a solution.
The DWP needs stability at the GM slot more than anything else, given the turmoil associated with having nine GMs in the last decade. The Office of Public Accountability with a ratepayer advocate will be yet another layer of bureaucracy. The focus will be on determining if rates are too high, not if DWP is using revenues to overhaul decaying infrastructure and move towards green energy and a sustainable, local water supply.
The mayor has made bold pronouncements on renewable energy (40% renewable by 2020), coal (get rid of polluting coal by 2020), and water management (increased conservation, water recycling, rainwater capture and wellhead treatment). However, the DWP is not progressing towards meeting these ambitious and admirable goals in a timely manner.
No initiative can mandate the leadership that is needed to ensure that DWP replaces or repairs decaying infrastructure and moves forward aggressively on sustainable local water supplies and a 40% renewable energy portfolio without dirty coal. The Office of Public Accountability shouldn’t be needed to hold DWP responsible for meeting the city’s goals. That’s the job of the DWP Commission, City Council, and the mayor’s office. They all need to make sure that DWP senior managers meet environmental milestones, provide more complete financial information, and tie rate increases solely to infrastructure replacement, repair and maintenance, green power enhancement, and sustainable local water sourcing.
Mayor Villaraigosa and the City Council could create a culture of accountability through the DWP budget, rate setting, and annual performance reviews based on the achievement of interim milestones, but they haven’t chosen to do so.
Because of the current financial crisis, there is a complete reluctance for the council to raise water and power rates, but what the city truly needs is an investment in sustainable water infrastructure and renewable energy. This transformation will not come cheaply, but I truly believe that most of the public could support rate increases if there were true DWP reform that included economic transparency and rate increases directly tied to needed green infrastructure.
Funds must be found to wean Los Angeles from coal (approximately half of its current energy is from dirty coal) and start relying on renewable energy. Funds are needed to replace, repair, and maintain decaying water and power infrastructure. Does anyone really believe the water conservation caused pipe ruptures? Or was it the fact that DWP’s water conveyance infrastructure is in dire need of a major overhaul.
Funds are needed to upgrade environmentally damaging once-through-cooling power plants to more energy-efficient, dry cooling facilities that don’t suck the life out of the ocean. And funds are needed to shift DWP from its growing reliance on MWD water, by shifting the city towards greater self reliance through conservation (which the city has done well on, but there is room for improvement), water recycling, well-head treatment of local groundwater, and rainwater capture and use.
As MWD water rates continue to rise and the future of imported water transfers grows in uncertainty, self reliance becomes critical from both an environmental and economic perspective. Other than conservation, DWP’s sustainable water programs are an embarrassment and its water recycling program is far behind every other water agency in the region.
Rate increases are needed to fund L.A.’s transformation to green energy and sustainable local water, but they won’t happen without major reform and strict accountability for every penny of the rate increase.
As I’ve stated before, a critical and long overdue reform is to separate water from power. A true watershed management approach includes sewage, stormwater and drinking water.
The Department of Public Works has responsibility over sewage and stormwater, but DWP is in charge of drinking water. Public Works has embraced watershed protection and has even reorganized and planned to better manage watershed resources. Other than water conservation, DWP hasn’t changed much in water management since the days of Mulholland.
(Another benefit could be the creation of a culture that mandates equal pay and benefits for equal work. Currently, an engineer, executive, analyst or administrative staff member working at City Hall makes about 20% less in pay and benefits than someone doing the same work at DWP. )
Separation of water from power can benefit the energy side of the equation too. A single-purpose power agency could be far more efficient and could be held more accountable to meeting the city’s green energy goals and complying with climate change regulations.
The time for true reform is now, but reform does not happen overnight. An ambitious goal of 2015 to separate water from power is achievable, but only if the mayor and the City Council act now to take the bold measures necessary to modernize L.A.’s infrastructure in order to meet Mayor Villaraigosa’s first stated environmental goal: to make Los Angeles the greenest and cleanest major city in America.