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Walnut Activist Wages Water War From Suburbs


From a suburban cul-de-sac in Walnut, Maxine Leichter wages a water war.

Unpaid but working long hours as the Sierra Club's San Gabriel Valley point woman, she has moved to the forefront of the fight over cleaning up one of the West's worst ground-water pollution problems--the contamination of the San Gabriel Basin.

Leichter, 44, is a relative newcomer to the San Gabriel Valley. She moved from West Los Angeles to Walnut in 1988 and got involved with the pollution issue last year, but she has already assumed a leading role among San Gabriel Valley environmentalists.

Using a computer in her home office, Leichter turns out press releases assailing local water officials and agencies.

Outside the county courthouse in Los Angeles, where a crucial San Gabriel Valley water pollution issue was before a judge, she recently declared: "Water is power in California. This . . . represents the first time there's been a challenge to the water Establishment in the San Gabriel Valley."

Explaining her activism, Leichter said: "I was just so disturbed when it looked like the (Main San Gabriel Basin) Watermaster would be in control of the cleanup and no one seemed to be objecting."

The nine-member watermaster board is seeking court approval to expand its authority over how and where water is pumped in the basin. This authority, water officials say, is crucial to remedying the contamination because pumping affects the flow of underground pollution.

But environmentalists such as Leichter are afraid that local water officials, if they take a supervisory role in the cleanup efforts, may ignore the needs of 1 million water consumers from Alhambra to La Verne.

She is one of those who want the state Legislature to create a regional super-agency to oversee the cleanup.

At present, no single government entity has the power to supervise and finance the pollution remedies, estimated to cost $850 million to $1 billion.

In heading the Water Quality Group of the Sierra Club's 58,000-member Angeles chapter, Leichter has become conversant in such highly technical but crucial documents as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's two-volume "Basinwide Technical Plan," released in April. She speaks knowledgeably about the one-inch-thick 1973 court decision that resulted in the creation of the Main San Gabriel Basin Watermaster.

"I have to be very careful I don't make a mistake," Leichter said. "I'm not just speaking for me. I'm speaking for the entire Angeles chapter of the Sierra Club."

She often publicly complains about the "old boy network" that runs the water companies and agencies in the San Gabriel Valley. But she has earned praise from at least one water official who is part of that network. Said Robert G. Berlien, a watermaster official and general manager of the Upper San Gabriel Valley Municipal Water District: "I have a lot of respect for her. She's more informed than most of our critics."

Although she hasn't lived long in the San Gabriel Valley, Leichter, who was born in Los Angeles, has spent two decades learning about California water politics.

After graduating from UCLA in 1967 with a bachelor's degree in philosophy, she joined a Westwood group that focused on environmental issues. There she became friends with Dorothy Green, who founded Heal the Bay, a group that crusades against pollution in Santa Monica Bay.

Leichter said: "A friend told me that there was this new movement, the environmental movement, that believed that people needed to live in harmony with nature instead of destroying it. This just touched something deep within me, and I knew this was what I was going to spend the rest of my life doing."

She became active in land-use fights in the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1980, she went on the Sierra Club lecture circuit in the environmentalists' statewide battle against the Peripheral Canal. She founded the Los Angeles League of Conservation Voters.

Among environmentalists, Leichter characterizes herself as a moderate. "I believe in working within the system," she said.

"I always wanted to make the world a better place to live. I always had a real love of nature," Leichter said. "The wild places of the world can't look after themselves, and they need people to make sure other people don't ruin them."

To her, a good time is taking a winter weekend trip to the Mojave Desert with her husband and the Sierra Club's Backroad Explorers.

Although Leichter has held both part-time and full-time jobs, she has spent much of her adult life caring for her two children and working as an environmental volunteer. She can do her current volunteer work, she said, because her husband, a vice president of an import-export firm, can support them.

"Sometimes I'm embarrassed," Leichter said, "when I meet women who are having a career and they get a lot of status and respect and I don't. Volunteers don't get the status they deserve."

For her part, Leichter said, she is comfortable in her adversarial role. "The water companies will get away with as much as they can, but we will go on fighting," she said.

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