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Water District Merger Disputes Come With the Territory

Perspective

September 15, 1997|JEAN O. PASCO | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Call them Orange County's water wars.

In the next six months, a state reorganization agency will grapple with a dozen applications by 18 water and sewer districts to consolidate some districts, dissolve others and morph the rest into new districts serving larger chunks of Orange County.

Each district has its own directly elected board of directors, its own recommendation for what should happen and its own particular notion of what's best for the public. Needless to say, there are some nasty fights brewing.

Some have already erupted:

* The Laguna Beach County Water District warned the city that four competing proposals to combine four water and sewer agencies could sock city residents with higher bills. The district announced that its request to consolidate with another agency was no longer attractive and proposed a fifth option. The Laguna Beach City Council will discuss the issue Tuesday.

* The board of the Tri-Cities Water District in South County has asked for a reconsideration on Sept. 22 of the decision by the Local Agency Formation Commission to dissolve it and give much of its assets to the city of San Clemente. The district is protesting handing its regional pipeline to the city and claims about $30 million in assets must be given to San Diego County.

* A contentious fight between Mesa Consolidated Water District in Costa Mesa and Irvine Ranch Water District about which will take over the Santa Ana Heights Water District should be decided next month. The tussle escalated into name-calling, a lawsuit and the aborted hiring of a company to run a public relations campaign pushing Mesa's application for control.

Dana M. Smith, LAFCO's executive officer, said the county is in for about three years of wrangling over who and how water and sewer services will shake out, particularly in South County. The goal is to make the patchwork of agencies providing the services more efficient and eliminate duplication.

"Years ago, farmers created irrigation districts to farm land, and, pretty soon, they were farming condominiums," Smith said. "The old boundaries weave in and out of urban settings. The key to all of this is assessing what the growth is going to look like in Orange County in the next 20 years and what the water and sewage treatment demands will be, and then to utilize our resources more efficiently."

Focus on the 32 little-known and usually misunderstood special districts in Orange County sharpened after the loss of $1.6 billion from the county's commingled investment pool in 1994. Government critics pointed to the districts' often-flush reserve accounts, only to discover the money was untouchable.

*

Last year, Assemblyman Curt Pringle (R-Garden Grove) introduced a bill in the Legislature that would have required the merging and consolidation of water districts. A grand jury report suggested its own scheme for making the county's water delivery system more manageable.

Districts responded by suggesting their own designs for future service. But there were as many ideas for how to change things as districts involved. The key issues: lowering costs and maintaining control over future rate increases.

In Laguna Beach, for example, Councilman Wayne L. Peterson wants the city and the Laguna Beach County Water District to annex a portion of the South Coast Municipal Water District. The city could then handle all of the water and sewage, or contract out for that service.

Smith said LAFCO, which has the final authority over the transformations, attempts to provide an independent review of the competing proposals, keeping personalities and turf wars out of it.

"We get in the middle of warring parties and try to take the public's perspective on it," she said. "No one really knows the water district better than the people in it. But they need to look beyond their own boundaries."

Besides the higher profile consolidation requests, several others are awaiting hearings in coming months:

* The Orange County Sanitation Districts are expected to file applications to consolidate their seven districts sometime this fall. The districts also prepared a report on consolidation for the county's 15 retail water agencies.

* There are three conflicting proposals for water service in the Dana Point area, some overlapping with Laguna Beach. The jurisdictions involved are the two cities and Capistrano Beach, South Coast Municipal Water district, the Laguna Beach County Water District and Dana Point Sanitation District. LAFCO is forming an "action committee" to wade through the numerous consolidation options.

* LAFCO is studying the consolidation of Coastal Municipal Water District and the Municipal Water Districts of Orange County, with a report due to commissioners in December. Both agencies are exclusive water wholesalers in their areas.

* An application is pending to consolidate the Serrano and Carpenter water districts in central Orange County, possibly adding East Orange Water District to a combined single district.

Perspective is a weekly column highlighting trends and events that define Orange County or an in-depth look at an issue affecting the county. Readers are invited to call Los Angeles Times correspondent Jean O. Pasco at (714) 564-1052 or send an e-mail to Jean.Pasco@latimes.com

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