California’s Real “Fix” for Affordable Water

By: Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Mr. Gary Brown, Director for the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD), address government water leaders from an assortment of California’s state and local water agencies about how Detroit reworked policies to address water affordability issues—a strategy that has led to 95% of Detroit’s water customers now paying their monthly water bills on time. While there are numerous differences between how a water-rich area like Detroit and an arid region like Los Angeles County can manage water availability, distribution, and rates, Mr. Brown described an ethos that is sorely lacking in water management throughout California. Mr. Brown said, and I am paraphrasing here, that while the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department is not a charity, it strives to be a trusted institutional partner in the community. He then went on to describe a water affordability program that keeps customers from sliding into and staying in delinquency. In doing so, Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department was able to provide everyone in their community with the access to water they need while improving the financial health of DWSD. He stressed that a business case exists for creating water affordability programs, including broad conservation programs that help low income customers decrease their household water use.


In the starkest of contrasts, when Sacramento Bee reporter Ryan Sabalow asked Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s (MWD) Board Chair, Randy Record, what happens if the price of the Delta tunnels should increase say to $20 billion, Mr. Record answered, “That’s a difficult question to answer. We’ve been very conservative in our estimates of what this project is going to cost and how long it’s going to take.” Mr. Record’s response to the question was made less than 24 hours after MWD’s vote to support two-thirds of the financing for the $16.8 billion Delta tunnels, and contradicts dozens of statements made by MWD’s General Manager Jeff Kightlinger, assuring the affordability of the project and MWD’s ability to engineer and build projects that come in on time and on budget.


One might argue that comparing the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department with Metropolitan is “apples and oranges” because DWSD is a utility and MWD is a wholesale water district. However, MWD is the lead organizing water entity for Southern California—it sets the planning standards for its member agencies and local municipal utilities. Yet, as indicated by Chair Record’s comment, earnest discussion, such as the real costs of constructing, owning, and operating the Delta tunnels, still has not happened. In the months leading to the October 2017 MWD vote to support 26% of tunnels financing, General Manager Kightlinger said CA WaterFix would cost households the price of a latte per month. In the weeks leading to the recent MWD vote to move forward with financing 67% (or more) of the Delta tunnels project, General Manager Kightlinger again said the project would cost households the price of one latte per month. MWD’s financial commitment jumped from $4.3 billion to a minimum of $11 billion, meaning that MWD-serviced households’ monthly bill would include the cost equivalent of some multi-liter-sized-latte topped with all the syrupy bells and whistles, instead of the medium-sized, $5 latte promised to ratepayers last October.


What we don’t know from MWD’s repeated use of latte metaphors is what MWD’s water ratepayers can afford to pay for water monthly, especially those living in economically disadvantaged communities. About 40% of Los Angeles residents live at the poverty level, yet MWD has never conducted a local water affordability analysis. In a recent paper by Texas A&M Associate Professor Manuel P. Teodoro, Measuring Household Affordability for Water and Sewer Utilities, Dr. Teodoro identifies that minimum wage workers in Los Angeles are already working seven hours monthly to pay their water bills, and 9.9 hours monthly in San Diego. Dr. Teodoro explains that water affordability should be calculated using a model that measures household-level affordability instead of the entire utility’s financial capability. This model also determines affordability for basic water needs instead of average consumption, and focuses on low-income households, in addition to other factors of essential living costs. Dr. Teodoro stated at the aforementioned water affordability conference that the present Los Angeles minimum wage hourly rate of seven hours of work paid for an average water bill falls within an affordable standard (8 hours is the threshold). However, when I asked him whether water agencies should conduct a water affordability analysis before taking on major water infrastructure projects, he answered yes.


Perhaps a water affordability analysis should look at how many more hours a person earning minimum wage in Los Angeles would have to work to pay for the inflated mega-latte?
A number of American cities like Detroit and Philadelphia have created water affordability rate programs based on research within their service areas to determine what households living between the poverty level and 150% above the poverty level can afford to pay for water. At MWD, what we see instead is a Board of Directors committed to spending billions of ratepayer dollars to continued pursuit of a deeply flawed project with an internal understanding that the project could cost even more than what the public has been told. Rather than working toward reduced water use through on-site assistance at every home that has trouble paying its water utility bill as is being done in Detroit, MWD is married to increased water use and dependence on imported water from the Delta. Whereas other water utilities in the United States are working toward affordability in water to address inequity, MWD is moving Southern California water retail utilities toward becoming water brokers, further exacerbating inequities yet to be rectified by California’s human right to water legislation.


It is not lost on us that Detroit, a water-rich, but low-income, community can provide personalized conservation services, but California’s largest urban water district and its member agencies spend a pittance on conservation and affordability programs, leaving their retail agencies cash-strapped and unable to perform such services. This is because wholesale and retail revenues are tied to water sales. This is also the reason why MWD spends little proportionally on conservation and has manipulated water export water baselines to illustrate economic benefit for WaterFix by overestimating water conservation costs and underestimating expenses for tunnel construction.


In a state with increased periods of drought and declining watersheds resulting from the impacts of climate change, how we raise revenues to keep our municipal and agricultural water districts financially healthy needs to be reexamined and restructured.


We are not arguing for starving water districts and agencies of revenues. We want the best engineers, chemists, managers, and professionals protecting, treating, and delivering our water supplies. People who can do this and successfully increase water recycling, reuse, and sustainability programs should be well compensated for important high-leveled service to the community. Clean water for domestic, business, industrial, and agricultural uses are the backbone of public health and prosperity. We are arguing that securing reliable access to clean and affordable water for all Californians—including those living in small San Joaquin Valley towns with polluted drinking water, tribes that rely on healthy rivers, and large environmental justice communities within Los Angeles County—must be the focus of wholesale and retail water districts. The Delta tunnels fail to address water equity issues outside of the Delta, and because of their exorbitant cost, work against any forward movement toward this needed institutional reform.


Forget for a moment whether one should oppose or support the Delta tunnels. Yes, that’s hard to do. What we find truly astonishing time and time again is the failure of the Department of Water Resources, and water contractors like MWD, to put the real problems, facts, and challenges on the table for correction, adjustment, mitigation, discussion, or elimination. One would think if they wanted the Delta tunnels so badly, their institutional experts would follow best planning practices, and address such equity questions, instead of using talking points about the monthly cost of a latte.


CA WaterFix exemplifies how NOT to run a government process that instills public confidence in our water institutions, or in the professional expertise of government water officials. Other Delta management programs promoted by the State also fail to inspire confidence in Delta residents that the State is a trusted institutional partner in our well-being.


One example of the failure to inspire confidence in Delta residents is how DWR failed to conduct a meaningful environmental justice analysis for the WaterFix Environmental Impact Report within Delta communities. Rather than identifying and discussing DWR’s case for supporting the project while trying to identify and mitigate concerns by such groups within the Delta, DWR’s hired consultant, chose to interview an older, business spokesperson who works for a local developer to speak on behalf of environmental justice communities. Another example is DWR’s failure to conduct a thorough survey of subsistence fishers in the Delta for the same EIR, which Restore the Delta estimates conservatively from a statistical sampling to be between 25,000 to 40,000 individuals. Additionally, the environmental justice analysis for WaterFix failed to examine the value of salmon migration through the Delta for Northern California’s tribes.


The Delta Stewardship Council (DSC) is part of this same vicious spiral of public distrust. The DSC intends to amend its Delta Plan’s policies concerning ecosystem restoration, and toward this end released three “synthesis papers” earlier this month. Its papers fail to “synthesize” restoration of Delta ecosystems with long-term sustainability of the Delta’s economy—led by agriculture and tourism, and anchored by its intricate levee system. “The implication,” Tim Stroshane tells me, “is that the DSC, despite some general language about protecting the Delta economy, sees Delta levees as fundamental obstacles to re-establishing connections between Delta channels and flood plains. They prefer to write airy general descriptions of the benefits to humans of restoration without honest reckoning with costs that would have to be paid. Apart from their ineffectual regulation of Delta affairs and appointees who are openly hostile to Delta interests, this passive hostility to Delta realities in the “synthesis papers” is another reason the DSC should be abolished.”


In The Death of Expertise, author Tom Nichols describes the many forces trying to undermine the authority of experts in the United States. He places the blame on a series of societal changes that have led to an undervaluing of expertise and have heightened anti-intellectualism. Sadly, we agree. We see comments made regularly by Californians (including some who support us) about water management and planning that are simply based on opinion and not on fact. Nichols, however, never quite addresses how experts who manipulate data and facts to promote or protect a hidden agenda, consequently, undermine credibility in the institutions they represent, leaving every day folks with the challenge of seeking the truth. Profit, power, and institutional self-protection make up this hidden agenda. It colors the framework through which the systems’ bureaucrats evaluate all they touch. Even Nichols, who argues for the absolute value of expertise, concedes that experts can fail in their work, when he argues that the best answer to faulty work by experts is the self-correcting presence of other experts and members of the public with their experiential knowledge to protect against systemic failures.


To a degree, such correction is occurring before the State Water Resources Control Board’s hearing for the change in the point of water diversion requested by DWR for the Delta tunnels—and not least because everyone testifying there must do so under oath. The abundant evidence and arguments presented by the protestants are the course correction from outside experts to counter numerous deficiencies in the Department of Water Resources’ Tunnels project.


Yet, even at the Water Board, the DWR has attempted to hide numerous problems associated with the tunnels by objecting to most outside experts and engaging in procedural sleights-of- hand such as: 1) changing its project description based on testimony they hear; 2) relying on statistical models that will result in water export decisions that cannot be tracked by the public; 3) promoting an adaptive management program that fails to monitor pollutants for health and human safety; 4) keeping their own in-house project experts away from testimony under oath to tell the truth. Their objective is to retain as much plausible deniability about project effects as possible.


One of the first questions that both Tim Stroshane and I were asked during cross-examination by Department of Water Resources attorneys at the Water Board Hearings was whether we opposed any new conveyance in the Delta. We answered that we opposed this project, and that any other future conveyance projects would have to be evaluated. What I wish I could have asked DWR’s attorney in return is, “Will DWR ever produce a state water management plan that is accurate, factual, honest, adheres to all water governance codes, is fair to Delta residents and fisheries, and makes clean drinking water available to all Californians at an affordable rate?” That is the real framework by which California WaterFix should be evaluated.


Will California ever institute best water management practices? The Delta tunnels are the horrific manifestation of our failure to accomplish such a noble end. The Delta tunnels symbolize the failure of a trusted partnership between Californians, water agencies, the state, and political leaders who cling to a nostalgic past of institutional self-preservation.

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