Nov 13 2013
On Tuesday evening November 12 my wife and I attended a forum sponsored by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG) in downtown Los Angeles titled “Are We Running Dry?”. During our trip back to San Diego my wife Nila said, “Except for brief comments about the Colorado River I never did hear an answer to the question.” Because of my book, Water Shock, The Day Southern California Went Dry, she has background on water issues.
The ten forum presenters who spoke included the top of the water industry in Southern California. Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California was the last to speak, except for closing remarks by Mike Feuer, Los Angeles City Attorney. Attendance was pitifully low. There were thirty-five in attendance Including the forum arrangements people, a timekeeper, and Nila and I.
Ostensibly designed to present first the problem and then the solutions to California’s water issues, the forum was a platform for the presenters to bloviate about how much progress they were making for the residents of the State on water issues. One speaker did make the point that water is too cheap, but the point was made by comparing, in a non-serious joking fashion, bottled water to the price of an acre-foot of utility-delivered water.
The common thread among all of the speakers was that all of the water utility fiefdoms have resulted in “Balkanizing” the water industry to the point that little progress can be made to equalize distribution networks – to get the water to those that need it the most. A National Water Policy? No, that’s a bad idea they said. It will ossify the already over-regulated water business.
Water pricing was a hole in the SCAG forum so large, the California Aqueduct could flow through it.
During the Q and A session after the speakers had concluded their remarks, a question was asked about the price of water by a member of the audience. It is unbelievable how convoluted the answers were as several of the presenters responded to the question, carefully avoiding the simple act of raising the price of water to near its value to the socio-economic health of Southern California. Phrases like, “a cap and trade system similar to the carbon tax” and other side-stepping solutions were mentioned.
Symptomatic of the mind-set of water general managers is the upside down approach to water pricing. “Got to keep the prices low” is the mantra. And why is this? Is there great concern for the budgets of average users? No. But there is great concern about a general manager keeping his or her job.
Water pricing was a hole in the SCAG forum so large, the California Aqueduct could flow through it. It is not complicated. Raising the price of any commodity tells the consuming public how society values it. And for a century, water has been priced too low. Why? Because first it seemed plentiful, but now because there is no political will to lead the public out of this mess. Translation: Spineless pols and bureaucrats protecting their jobs. “But the poor will suffer.” No, they won’t. Just as there is a lifeline allowances for energy, providing there is an honest discussion of water pricing, those on the low end of the economic scale will be taken care of, instead of subsidizing the agri-business lobby. The funds necessary to provide funding for Indirect potable and direct potable water recycling will be available when realistic water pricing happens. But first the topic of water pricing has to be front and center of any forum on water. Platitudes like, “we can never be water independent” belong on the cutting room floor.
Electricity a commodity. It is priced to provide generation and distribution. Do we think electrical rates are too high? Sure, but do we also expect the light to turn on when the switch is flipped. Absolutely. Do we have a reliable water delivery system? That is the dark secret that water managers don’t want the general public to find out.
Totally missing from this forum were the actual players: residential water users, agri-business water users and industrial water users. This was a forum made up of consultants and bureaucrats who have one goal in mind –keep the salaries and fees flowing. And where does that money come from? Right! The users who pay their water bills. Forum presenters versus the users is agonizingly similar to the relationship between the U.S. Congress and the taxpayers.
Jim Thebaut, the moderator, seemed to be more interested in selling his 2008 film “Are We Running Dry”, than getting the forum question answered. There were no opposing viewpoints presented to offset the drum beat of self-congratulatory remarks and chest-beating that occurred throughout the night at a function that started at 5:00 PM at the SCAG headquarters, 818 West 7th in LA, and concluded sometime after 9:00 PM.
Mark Feuer, billed as providing the closing remarks, used his time to complain about how much money was being spent in the continuing dust mitigation litigation related to the dust bowl created over one hundred years ago in the Owens Valley when LA stole the water rights of the farmers there and drained the lake. This had little or nothing to do with the thematic forum question. But he obviously enjoyed talking about it.
Presenters at the SCAG forum were David Nahai (keynote address), President, David Nahai Consulting Services LLC; Mark Pisano, Senior Fellow, USC School of Policy Planning and Development; Jeff Mosher, Executive Director, National Water Research Institute; Scott Slater, Shareholder and member of the Water & Public Lands Group, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck; Maureen Stapleton, General Manager, San Diego County Water Authority; Floyd Wicks, Owner, H2Options, Inc. and Water Supply Consultant, Niagara Conservation; Ron Smith, Board of Directors, West Basin Municipal Water District; Jim McDaniel, Senior Assistant General Manager, LADWP; Caryn Mandelbaum, Freshwater Program Director, Environment Now; Jeff Kightlinger, General Manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.
Milton N. Burgess, P. E., FASPE