The last few weeks have been rough ones for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, even by their standards. Controversies over how $40 million in ratepayer funds was spent by two DWP affiliated nonprofits over the last decade, and major glitches in the $150-million-plus new meter-reading and billing system have echoed the problem-plagued startup of the "Obamacare" health insurance system, and have further eroded consumer confidence in the municipal utility. The DWP is giving the IRS, DMV, and even Congress a real run for their money in a race to the bottom in public popularity.
Crucial environmental reforms could be at risk. As public confidence scrapes rock bottom, it is going to be extremely difficult for DWP leadership to move forward with ambitious environmental initiatives. DWP achievements--expanding reliance on renewable energy, continued water conservation gains, a commitment to wean the city from coal as an energy source, and the initiation of the solar feed-in tariff program (in which consumers can sell power back to the grid)--are already getting lost in the ongoing, often mind-numbing controversies surrounding the utility.
The Garcetti administration has made expansion of the utility's solar feed-in tariff program a top priority. And the mayor has stated that we need a major shift from imported water to local water supplies. In fact, a proposal to increase rates to support this shift to an integrated "one water" management approach is scheduled to reach the city council next year. The rate increase has been postponed a number of times before for various political reasons, but the bottom line is that a rate increase will be essential to fund the investments necessary for LA to ultimately rely more on local water. We've all heard the facts, especially this fall during the centenary of the LA Aqueduct: 89 percent of our water supply is imported from more than 200 miles away and only 1 percent of our water supply currently comes from recycled water, despite the fact that the city produces approximately 450 million gallons a day of treated wastewater. This is not sustainable.
The DWP's rate increase will need to be large enough to provide adequate, ongoing, reliable revenues to transform the city's water infrastructure. DWP's proposed San Fernando Valley groundwater treatment system and the addition of advanced treatment to the Tillman Water Recycling Facility are critical major projects that will move the city forward. But additional water recycling efforts, large scale infrastructure to capture, infiltrate and use stormwater, and even more aggressive water conservation efforts are all needed to reduce our unsustainable reliance on imported water.
Previous DWP water-rate increase proposals under the Villaraigosa administration were not adequate to transform our antiquated water supply infrastructure to the "integrated resources plan" approach that has earned the city national accolades. A five- to 10-year water-rate increase in the range of 4 to 5 percent annual increases will be needed to make the IRP approach a reality.
We've seen the Bureau of Sanitation in the Public Works Department move forward with rate increases of similar size and scope and the result has been a much healthier Santa Monica Bay, massive decreases in the number of sewage spills each year, and safer beaches during the summer months. So we know that transformations of citywide infrastructure are possible.
The real question is this: With public trust of the DWP at such a low point, will the public, the city council, and mayor Garcetti support the long-term rate increase that will be needed to transform LA's water system for the future? And if so, what checks and balances will be put in place to ensure the increased cost to ratepayers will result in the reliability, sustainability, and environmental benefits that we will be paying for?
Photo courtesy of Flickr user jozjozjoz: "Bright Ideas from LADWP."