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Secessionists Need to Worry About Water

October 08, 2000|LEON FURGATCH | Leon Furgatch is a retired manager of community relations and educational services for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

The availability of an adequate water supply always has been the defining ingredient for prosperity in semi-arid Southern California. Communities that have not planned well for water supplies have found themselves in trouble.

Secession groups that want the San Fernando Valley, San Pedro and Hollywood to break away from the city of Los Angeles are faced with this problem. To achieve secession they are banking on a simple formula that has worked well for smaller communities that have broken away from other cities or counties: Tally a city's assets and divide them in an equitable manner between the separating parties.

Unfortunately, this solution may not work in the case of Los Angeles' most valuable, intangible asset: water rights. There is increasing evidence the city will refuse to divide these rights, and the separating communities would have to engage in a long and costly lawsuit to try to gain a share of these rights. The history of water law decisions is stacked against them.

First, they would have to overturn decisions by the California and U.S. Supreme courts affirming the city's paramount rights to the underground and surface waters of the Los Angeles River.

Second, these communities were annexed to the city in the 1900s to obtain water from William Mulholland's newly constructed aqueduct to the Owens Valley. Unless the courts can be convinced that the agreements are worthless, they would lose rights to most of this water. The remaining rights to Sacramento Delta and Colorado River water would not be enough to maintain prosperity, and rather than gamble on a favorable decision, the new cities would have to launch an immediate search for additional supplies.

Until new supplies were found, the new cities would be temporarily insulated from water shortages by a 1907 California Supreme Court ruling that requires utilities to serve previous customers. However, secession is expected to trigger additional litigation to clarify paramount rights in an emergency situation, such as a severe drought. In such an emergency, the City Charter is clear that the city has a first obligation to its own citizens.

The charter also authorizes a surcharge on any water sold to other communities. Valley residents would take a particularly hard hit because of the higher temperatures and water usage.

These warnings are supported in a preliminary secession study provided to the Local Agency Formation Commission in 1999 by L.A. County's Urban Research Division. Valley secessionist leader Richard Close is an alternate member of the commission and should be aware of this report.

The following excerpts from this study provide evidence of the risk: "The history of water supply in the Los Angeles region has left a legacy of legal rulings making the subject of its supply and the ownership of water rights crucial to resolution of issues prior to municipal secession."

"A city formed as part of a special reorganization might have the right to be served and may not have ownership rights to the sources of the water delivered."

"If the San Fernando Valley secedes, it may not own the water rights to its aquifer or to Owens Valley water. Rather, it may be entitled to purchase water from DWP--possibly at market prices."

The secessionists remain undaunted by the water issue. They were heartened recently when Los Angeles County Counsel Lloyd Pellman offered a legal opinion that water rights are considered an asset of a city under state law, and that LAFCO, as an agent of the state, has the legal authority to divide the water.

But if Pellman's opinion is implemented, Mayor Richard Riordan has indicated the city will file a lawsuit. This could create a lengthy delay in the release of a study designed to inform the public if the breakup would be equitable for the separated parties. If LAFCO ignores the water issue to speed secession to the ballot by 2002, it could be accused of hiding important information needed by voters.

Fairness to both sides requires that the water issue be resolved before a vote. In either case, the secessionists stand to lose. If a delay of years in the courts did not kill the movement, a decision favoring the city would deal a coup de grace.

What is surprising is that civic groups and the business community have not awakened to this threat. A lawsuit, coupled with a public debate, could provide the wake-up call.

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