B.J. Atkins | Water in SCV: Success in a New Era

Commentary

The newest water agency in California, the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency, or SCV Water, has been one big success story. Formed on Jan. 1, 2018, it’s hard to believe this new agency is approaching its second anniversary.

It was not easy! Ongoing litigation between Newhall County Water District and Castaic Lake Water Agency strained the negotiations to become one new organization. Each group sent two board members as emissaries to join an ad hoc committee. Their charge: Determine if an agreement could be reached. If so, draft an agreement to combine these two, plus the Santa Clarita Water Division and Valencia Water Co. (four entities became one).

It seemed at times there was no way to make this work. It had never been done before in California. The lift was just too heavy. A facilitator assisted in establishing the principles for going forward (think rules of engagement). These principles laid out how the emissaries and respective board members were to treat each other and how disagreements were to be resolved. Eventually an agreement restructuring water governance in the SCV was signed, and Senate Bill 634 was crafted.

Championed by Republican State Sen. Scott Wilk, SB 634 would accomplish the needed restructuring. Mr. Wilk and his staff were brilliant in guiding SB 634 through the California Legislature dominated by Democrats, an arduous journey indeed. The effort took a change of thinking, a regional watershed-wide perspective not limited by boundaries drawn a century ago. This new agency operates using an innovative new business model at an elevated scale. It is more efficient, has a much higher profile and greater leverage for grant money in Sacramento and Washington, D.C.

This is one watershed, and we are now one water agency. This “one watershed” approach, which covers nearly all the Santa Clarita Valley, has pulled together the best from each of the previous legacy water organizations in the SCV. Only 215 employees serve nearly 300,000 customers. They represent an extraordinary “brain trust,” working together to solve problems creatively and efficiently. With generations of accomplishment and a bright future already packed with success, SCV Water is fast becoming the “best-in-class” water agency SCV ratepayers deserve.

Saving Millions of Dollars

Just how much money could be saved by combining the existing wholesale and retail water groups? A consultant’s report concluded a savings of $14 million could be expected over the first 10 years. Savings the first year were over $3 million; it is clear the $14 million will be saved in the first three years. Reducing staff size through attrition and retirements (no layoffs), using in-house crews vs. contractors for certain maintenance and construction projects, eliminating redundant audit consultants, legislative advocates, insurance savings and grouping of departments to be more efficient, and more, have contributed. SB 634 also requires the number of board directors to shrink to nine by Jan. 1, 2023.

SCV Residents Like Their New Water Agency

Customers participating in a survey during the first year of operation indicated 80% were satisfied with the overall water service they received. This number was 60% in 2017. Satisfaction means more than just delivering reliable, clean water – it’s providing excellent customer service and clear communications. An overwhelming majority — 94% of customers surveyed — agreed SCV Water provides them accurate and reliable information. This is because SCV Water strives to be transparent in operations, financial information and planning.

The Challenges Ahead:

Up to 30% of the electricity used in California is for moving water. Keeping water rates steady in the face of ever-increasing electric rates is a huge task. The list of challenges includes finding adequate water resources, treating water (confirming it is safe and healthy), coping with the loss of skilled retirees, finding ways to engage the community (communicating the value of water), plus maintenance or replacement of aging infrastructure. Ensuring adequate financial resources are available to meet these challenges in the face of water conservation is also daunting.

GREAT NEWS! The new team at SCV Water is below budget nearly $6.2 million this fiscal year! There are, however, never-ending challenges like expanding treatment costs in response to state mandates. One very recent unexpected expenditure will use up the $6 million just saved. Like the joys of homeownership (think having to replace your refrigerator), the challenges just keep coming. This makes the goal of not raising water rates a complicated proposition indeed.

The triumphs of the new SCV Water agency were hard-earned. SCV water ratepayers can be proud of their new water agency, SCV Water, where together we are making success happen. Learn more at www.yourscvwater.org.

B.J. Atkins is a long-time Newhall resident, serves as a director on the SCV Water board and is co-owner of a local environmental consulting company, Environmental HELP Inc. “Right Here, Right Now” appears Saturdays and rotates among local Republicans.

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