David Lutness: History and the water bill

Proposed districts if the consolidation of Castaic Lake Water Agency and the Newhall County Water District are finalized via legislation.
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Will Senate Bill 634, proposing a merge of Santa Clarita Valley water districts into one “super water district,” really do what is promised – streamline the process and save money? Or is it a just a big PR job?

Hundreds of thousands of dollars of public money are being spent by our water agencies to promote this so-called water merger, which looks to me more like a takeover of Newhall County Water District by Castaic Lake Water Agency.

While it is supposed to create a new “super water agency,” it leaves out Valencia Water Company until some point after the bill is passed, and it eliminates Water works District 36 completely, leaving a big doughnut hole in the middle of this agency. It also eliminates the checks and balances that helped provide public oversight in our current water structure.

Currently, the retail water agencies like Newhall County Water District serve the public directly, while Castaic Lake Water Agency (like the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California) is in charge of importing state water.

In the past, this division of powers has worked well, with a few blips (such as the takeover of Valencia Water), to ensure that our water is fairly distributed. Some competition exists, ensuring efficiency at the retail level.

This new “super agency” would be a vertical monopoly with checks and balances eliminated. And, like the gas station with higher prices that is owned by the oil company vs. the independent station down the street, it would increase our water rates.

The public is being told that this new agency will hold rates down, but when the Castaic Lake Water Agency acquired Santa Clarita Water Company in 2000, and Valencia Water in 2012, those residents’ rates went up.

Apparently, customers of Santa Clarita Water Division (whose district is now owned by CLWA) will face yet another increase in water rates soon, based on information in SCWD’s their agenda.

Many Santa Clarita Valley water customers have been angry about the several hundred thousand dollars spent recently to persuade us that this water merger is a wonderful idea.

The money is being spent on everything from expensive lobbyists in Sacramento to public relations firms developing mailers and ads in our local media, all to convince us a big-government water agency will be efficient.

But it is hard to believe, based on past history and CLWA’s massive debt and financial setbacks, that this consolidation would not raise everyone’s rates.

How are they able to spend public money – money from us, the ratepayers – in this way? They say this is “educational” spending, therefore legal.

Is it anything more than selling snake oil?  If an election were held to actually ask the public what it wanted, the agencies would not be able to spend our water payments to promote this merger.

Instead, there would have to be a real public debate. It is high time that you, The Signal, and/or some other responsible agency asks whether this spending really is a “water-related expense,” as required by Prop 13, and whether these massive expenditures are legal.

Now there is even more reason to doubt the truthfulness of the PR rhetoric. A May 4 email exchange between Matt Stone, general manager of Castaic Lake Water Agency, and a public relations representative in the pro-merger drive shows organizers want to keep the lid on public expectations.

“Perhaps the cards can provide more clear sense that rates do tend to increase with inflation and other cost drivers, but savings would dampen those increases somewhat,” Stone wrote.

Let me repeat that last statement: “Savings would dampen those increases somewhat.”

Is it better to believe CLWA based on what it is claiming will happen or on past experience ? You be the judge.

But as a customer of Valencia Water, which is paying $800,000 in annual dividends to Castaic Lake Water Agency – money from the water rates I pay – I am going to bet on past history and expect that, if this SB634 bill passes, my rates will go up again.

I will be calling Senator Scott Wilk to ask him to withdraw this bill.


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