Our View: Water bill questions linger

Our View

A common saying among water leaders in the Santa Clarita Valley is that customers pay little or no attention to their water supply unless their taps run dry.

One can add to the list of public attention-getters “unless their rates rise noticeably.”

Currently, Senate Bill 634 – a law proposed early this year that would join SCV’s water wholesaler with three of its retailers for a valleywide water district – faces its biggest hurdle in the cost-scrutinizing Assembly Appropriations Committee, the bill’s author told Chamber of Commerce members Wednesday.

But the “One Valley, One Water Company” proposal also is facing increasing scrutiny, and increasing objections, on the home front as it flies with apparent ease through the legislative process.

We believe now is a good time for water district customers to pause and reflect on some questions about the bill that are still unanswered.

What’s the rush?

Board members for the Santa Clarita Valley’s two public water agencies signed a merger agreement in December and almost immediately began their hunt for a legislative sponsor for their bill, saying they wanted it approved by the end of the year.

As a consequence, Senate Bill 634 was introduced in a very rudimentary form and required extensive revisions. It has been amended four times since its Feb. 17 introduction date.

The practice of changing a proposed law between introduction and final legislative action is a common one; sometimes entire bills are gutted and new content substituted.

But this bill involves a major change in Santa Clarita Valley public water policy, and the two parties that agreed to merge – retailer Newhall County Water District and wholesaler Castaic Lake Water Agency – spent about two years working out details, first considering the merger privately and second nailing down specifics publicly.

In fact, as far back as April 2008, if not farther, the Castaic Lake Water Agency was eyeing a strategic plan it called One Valley, One Water Company to create one valleywide district.

So what’s the rush now? Is this bill really about improving water stewardship valleywide, or is it about settling litigation between feuding water agencies?

Why Wilk?

Sen. Scott Wilk, who prefers an R-Antelope Valley designation to R-Santa Clarita, is the legislator who agreed to carry the bill for the water districts.

The senator has a long-running relationship with Castaic Lake Water Agency, having lobbied for the agency as far back as 2007, if not farther.

The agency often spends hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on lobbying firms like Virginia-based Anchor Consulting LLC, which employed Wilk in 2007.

One wonders how much money flowed from the water agency’s  coffers to Wilk’s employer and how chummy the relationship was.

Apparently, the relationship’s not built on mutual respect.

“For the record, it’s my bill,” Wilk wrote in an email to The Signal last April, chastising this newspaper for questioning water board officials about details on policy changes, rather than asking him.

“So talking to other people is fine, but it’s ultimately my call.

“The water board people are good people, but they are first engineers (politically tone deaf) and second, they have a certain arrogance in that they believe they know better than anyone else about water and how to deliver it,” Wilk wrote in the email.

We wonder if the legislator-hunters at Castaic Lake and Newhall County talked to the SCV’s other state senator, Henry Stern, when searching for a legislator to carry their water bill.

Stern has abstained from voting on SB 634 at least twice but has openly questioned the bill’s transparency and specifically criticized it for its vagueness regarding the Valencia Water Company’s status in the proposed new district.

That issue has been made more clear in an amendment.

“I feel that the people of the Santa Clarita Valley need more assurance that this bill won’t tip the scales or end-around existing water and environmental reviews of new land developments,” Stern told The Signal in a June interview.

The senator from the 27th District, Stern worked as a senior policy adviser to former Sen. Fran Pavley before he was elected to her seat when she was termed out. An environmental attorney, Stern was elected to Pavley’s former Senate seat in November and appointed to five committees, including Energy, Utilities and Commerce; Environmental Quality; and Natural Resources and Water.

Why does SB 634 deny a public vote?

The bill would repeal existing law that currently allows for a ratepayer vote “for any proposal involving the dissolution of the Newhall County Water District,” according to the Legislative Council’s Digest.

But to put the issue on the ballot, ratepayers would be required to submit a petition to hold such a vote. We’ve seen no such signature collection drive within the Newhall County Water District.

SB 634 would close the door on such a possibility.

Why does SB 634 curtail LAFCO authority?

An early version of the senate water bill turned its back on the Local Agency Formation Commission for Los Angeles County. The commission responded with a recommendation against the proposed law.

The water bill was then revised to return LAFCO to the process, but in a diminished role. LAFO responded with a neutral stance.

Fifty-eight Local Agency Formation Commissions in the state, one for each county, are mandated to ensure that local agencies, boards and districts are organized and managed responsibly – so that, for example, a development isn’t approved without a sufficient water supply.

The purpose is to protect residents from mishandled local government.

The revised SB 634 forbids LAFCO from requiring a public vote as a condition for approving the bill. It calls for the proposed new valley-wide district to submit an application to LAFCO by Jan. 31, 2018, and a public hearing to follow within 60 days.

But if water district plans meet the deadlines that district supporters hope for, the bill could be OK’d before those LAFCO expectations are met.

Why is the role of Water Works District 36 not clearly stated in SB 634?

Since the bill’s approval in the Senate, if not earlier, at least some residents in Castaic and other areas served by District 36 are asking questions about the district’s role in the supposedly valleywide water district proposed by the bill.

“We want to make sure our district stays whole and that we have access to representation,” Lloyd Carder II, president of the Castaic Area Town Council, told The Signal in May.

Town Council members have said they want to know where district residents stand in the revised water district and what assurances they will have for being able to weigh in on important water issues such as rate hikes.

“It’s not clearly defined in the bill,” Carder said. “It’s assumed but not stated.”

With so many questions still remaining and the bill possibly nearing its final round of votes, we return to the question, “What’s the rush?”

We know that on issues as local as this one, the general legislative tradition is to go with what the local legislator asks, so the bill may not necessarily receive scrutiny as tough as local residents hope for.

But we believe there is much that still needs answering. We invite Santa Clarita Valley residents to read the latest version of SB 634 at https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billTextClient.xhtml?bill_id=201720180SB634 and weigh in on the issue with letters to the editor or columns sent to [email protected].

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