Our View: Water District bill begs questions

Proposed districts if the consolidation of Castaic Lake Water Agency and the Newhall County Water District are finalized via legislation.

As Scott Wilk’s bill to approve a Santa Clarita Valley-wide water district moves through the state Legislature, more and more voices are asking the question, “What about Valencia Water District?”

Two local districts – wholesaler Castaic Lake Water Agency and retailer Newhall County Water District – announced in late 2015 that talks to merge the two districts were under way.

Lynne Plambeck, longtime critic of the merger and Newhall County Water District board member, said the announcement was made only after she filed papers challenging behind-closed-doors talks between the two publicly elected water agencies.

Proponents admitted discussions about merging the two districts – suggested by an arbiter largely to end ongoing legal disputes between the two – had been going on for about a year.

Throughout most of the next year, four public discussions were held before the merger was approved Dec. 13, 2016, by a vote of the two water boards.

At that point the public relations professionals hired by the water districts switched language. The issue was no longer a two-district merger, but rather the birth of a new district, the Santa Clarita Valley Water District.

With that verbiage it went to Santa Clarita Valley state Sen. Scott Wilk to be put in the form of legislation, one of two ways for such a merger to be approved.

The proposed new valley-wide water district includes Castaic Lake Water Agency and four SCV retailers, though only two sat at the negotiating table:

–       The former Santa Clarita Water District, which Castaic Lake bought years ago and absorbed as a CLWA division. As such it can be considered represented at the negotiation table;

–       Newhall County Water District, a publicly elected body. Two board members represented its interests in merger talks; the merge was never put to a vote of the residents/ratepayers;

–       Water Works District 36, a county agency that serves parts of Castaic and Val Verde;

–       Valencia Water Company, previously owned by developer Newhall Land and Farming. CLWA bought the stock of Valencia Water in December 2012, which removed it from all public-agency scrutiny. Valencia Water is a private firm with no public accountability, and it’s been notably dismissed from public merger talks.

So where do Valencia Water and Water Works District 36 fit into this proposed new Santa Clarita Valley Water District?

The Senate Committee on Natural Resources passed Wilk’s Senate Bill 634 earlier this month on a 7-0 vote with two abstentions. In a report to the committee state staffers noted, “The bill is largely silent on the other two retail water suppliers (Water Works District 36 and Valencia Water) within the district boundaries.”

The report notes Valencia Water is not under the Public Utilities Commission, as it was before CLWA purchased the stock. Thus its rates aren’t governed by Propositions 218, which requires voter approval for imposing or increasing general taxes, assessments, and certain user fees.

The district also lacks an elected board. Directors consist mostly of former CLWA General Manager Dan Masnada and several CLWA employees.

Less asked about – but perhaps more pertinent – is District 36’s status. Who represented these ratepayers, mostly residents of unincorporated Los Angeles County, in the discussions to turn over that district to a valleywide water district?

For more than a week these questions were asked and not answered. But on Thursday, General Manager Matt Stone of the Castaic Lake Water Agency told The Signal that Valencia Water would be brought under the umbrella of the Santa Clarita Valley Water District if the Wilk legislation is approved. Upon approval, the stock would become the district’s property, not CLWA’s.

Currently, Castaic Lake can own the stock but not operate the district. So why would the new water district owning the stock free it to operate Valencia Water when Castaic could not?

Meantime, Valencia Water’s limbo status is creating problems elsewhere. The effort to form a groundwater-monitoring agency, mandated by the state, involves Santa Clarita Water Division and Newhall County Water District – but not Valencia Water because it’s not a public agency.

That means the largest of local retailers is excluded from groundwater management – hardly the state’s vision for the new agency.

Valencia Water needs to be repatriated and accountable to the public, and questions need answering regarding District 36 and the proposed Newhall Ranch development.

We don’t think these are trivial issues. And we really hope the eventual answer isn’t: “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”


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