When the price tag for the road leading up to the Rio Vista Water Treatment Plant above the Santa Clarita Valley reached a million dollars, local critics of the Castaic Lake Water Agency were hardly surprised.
After all, they grumbled, it seemed fitting that the Taj Mahal--as they like to call the new plant--had a grand entrance.
By water treatment plant standards, the 30-million-gallon-a-day Rio Vista facility is top of the line.
Its science--using ozone instead of chlorine to purify water--is state of the art. Its architecture--Spanish-style tile roofs overhead and Mexican paver tiles underfoot--lends the place the air of a Mediterranean villa.
The plant, really a hilltop complex, certainly sports some Cadillac touches: golden oak paneling in the board room, panoramic views from the control room, a million-dollar water conservation garden.
But the luxuries come at a steep price. On top of the hefty $132-million cost, there is deep division in the community over who should pay for the plant and other steps the water agency is taking to prepare the burgeoning Santa Clarita Valley for another growth spurt.
"The question is, who's going to pick up the tab for this?" said Allan Cameron, an outspoken critic of the Castaic Lake Water Agency and its new "palatial" offices. "This thing is a massive expenditure of public money," he said. "If the voters are going to be on the hook for this, they should have a chance to say no."
That's precisely the message that Cameron and others hope to get across in Tuesday's election, which is largely seen as a referendum on the water establishment. Four challengers are going up against three incumbents in a virtually unheard-of united campaign spotlighting the high cost of the Rio Vista plant, charges of conflicts of interests and the alleged spendthrift ways of the water agency.
A fourth incumbent bowed out early, declining to run because, he said, it wasn't worth the grief.
"To have people criticize you day after day when they don't know what the hell they're talking about, it's unbearable," said Stephen J. McLean, a Metropolitan Water District engineer who ruled out a reelection bid. "And then, to have them cast themselves as the voice of the community and watchdogs of the agency is ridiculous."
Mix in some volatile arguments over growth--and even emotional charges of a "Chinatown"-type collusion between the water agency and developers--and the result is a pretty spirited election season in a normally sleepy contest for seats on the local water board.
Running for reelection are Mary Spring, 67, a mediator and water board president; Richard Green, 44, a nursery owner; and Don Froelich, 53, manager of the Glendale Water Department.
The four would-be reformers are Randall Pfiester, 43, a research scientist; Michael Kotch, 44, an engineer; Paul Belli, 43, a business manager; and Jack Woodrow, 65, a retired marketing manager. Also vying for one of the four open seats are candidates Joe Daly, 62, a civil engineer; Richard Balcerzak, 57, a water engineer; and Peter Kavounas, 32, a water resources engineer.
Water agency officials complain that the reformists are running on platforms built more on conspiracy theories and no-growth agendas than on the truth.
"The main thing we're troubled by is there's a certain amount of rhetoric that comes out of these folks," said Robert C. Sagehorn, general manager of the Castaic Lake Water Agency. "It's spicy material, but it's just plain wrong."
But the other side says it's hard to ignore the fact that the water agency is amid preparations for future growth, and that current residents are helping fund the expansion with their property taxes. Furthermore, they point to evidence that the agency plans to increase their water rates.
This is, planners believe, a valley that is but one-third built out. Twice as many people will put down roots here in the next 25 years, needing twice as much water, before this bedroom community will be considered fully developed.
Already, the area's largest builder, the Newhall Land and Farming Co., has announced intentions to line up water for another 70,000 residents it hopes to attract to its future Newhall Ranch development.
The way to cope with all this growth--the obligation, as Sagehorn sees it--is to prepare today for the needs of tomorrow.
Hence the new plant, and a number of other steps taken by the agency such as water reclamation, acquiring outside water rights and an attempt at buying the retail Santa Clarita Water Co.
"What we're doing is subsidizing the areas to be developed," said Scott Franklin, a Santa Clarita resident and former chairman of the state Water Commission.
What really gets under Franklin's skin, and irks others too, is that--in addition to the four elected seats--the 11-member water board has four voting members who are appointed by each of the four retail outfits that sell the agency water. One of those outfits is the Valencia Water Co., owned by Newhall Land and Farming Co.