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Cam Noltemeyer: One valley, one water agency — is bigger really better?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: March 3, 2010 3:52 p.m.
Updated: March 4, 2010 4:55 a.m.
At a February meeting, the Castaic Lake Water Agency announced its decision to expand its retail authority to encompass its full boundaries. Currently it can only provide retail service for the Santa Clarita Water Co.

This idea is not new.  Last year, along with the release of the One Valley, One Vision update for our Local Area Plan, CLWA began its campaign to take over all the local water agencies with the mantra of “One Valley, One Water Agency.”

To most people, water issues are pretty complicated until their rates go up. Then they complain, but by that time it is usually too late. This time the public will be watching.

When CLWA bought Santa Clarita Water Co. in 1999 from its private owners, a huge uproar ensued for many reasons.

First, the $63 million dollar price tag was as much as four times the appraised amount. Second, the company owned two of the wells polluted with ammonium perchlorate that had been shut down. Why pay so much to acquire what would become a long and costly legal and clean up battle?

But perhaps the biggest reason for opposition was that CLWA had no right to operate retail. A court confirmed this two years later.

Only then did CLWA go to the state Legislature and get its law changed through AB134, so it could own Santa Clarita Water Co.  

So now we have an opportunity to see exactly what will happen if CLWA acquires other water agencies in this valley. The first thing that happened was that rates increased for the customers of Santa Clarita Water Co., while the protections they were supposed to have through the legislation disappeared.

A companion bill to AB134 was supposed to ensure that Santa Clarita ratepayers had representation on the CLWA board.

Instead, that legislation was written so that the new director was elected “at large” by the whole valley, not by the people he or she was supposed to represent. So much for no taxation without representation. Not in this water agency!

Then, CLWA borrowed against the water agency, using it as insurance on its bond issue. Santa Clarita Water Co. customers paid the interest cost of loans.

CLWA changed the ratio of groundwater to state water sold to Santa Clarita customers, so that its customers now had to buy substantially more of the expensive water from Northern California. This required another rate increase. Although more than 1,000 people protested this rate increase at a public hearing or by mail, it was not enough to rescind it.

Now, CLWA wants to become the water monopoly in town. Getting permission from the state Legislature to expand its retail boundary is the first legal step in this process. It would mean that the CLWA could then take over all the other companies in the Santa Clarita Valley.

What could we look forward to? Judging by what happened with Santa Clarita Water Co., the answer is higher rates and less representation.  

When one looks at CLWA itself, the answer is expensive consultants and even more out-of-control water-rate increases. Is bigger really better?

I hope the public will have the opportunity to weigh in on this effort at the state level. I say “hope” because it appears that Castaic Lake Water Agency will make public input very difficult.

First, the agency will submit a “spot” bill. Then it apparently intends to use the rushed “gut and amend” process to rush through a boundary change with little or no public participation.

“Gut and amend” is an archaic process whereby a bill author can take everything out of a bill and put completely new language in at the last minute.

While this may be appropriate for minor negotiated changes, it is never appropriate when used to try to avoid a fair public process.

In fact the Legislature may consider eliminating it for this very reason.

Sure enough, in spite of CLWA’s agenda item identifying the need to change its boundaries and its intention to submit a “spot” bill for this purpose, the “spot” bill (AB2647) placed in process for the agency by Assemblyman Cameron Smyth has nothing to do with this.

Will CLWA and Smyth use the unfair “gut and amend” process to avoid hearing from the public and any other opposition? It appears so.

We get the government that we ask for. If big government, big spending, high rates and no representation is what you want, then
One Valley, One Water Agency is just the thing for you.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita resident and a board member of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays and rotates among local environmentalists.


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