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Doubling of water fees in largely blue-collar L.A. County area stirs uproar

The Central Basin Municipal Water District says the money will go to projects that are cheaper to build during a recession. But client cities and agencies question the expenditures.

July 18, 2009|Louis Sahagun

A water district's decision to double water fees has sparked outcry from largely working-class and impoverished areas of Los Angeles County.

The Central Basin Municipal Water District unanimously approved the charges June 25, despite objections from cities including Compton, Lynwood, Santa Fe Springs, Huntington Park, Bellflower, Norwalk and Lakewood.

The fee hikes will be phased in, from $44 per acre-foot of water to $62 per acre-foot on July 1, then to $72 per acre-foot on Jan. 1, 2010, and $92 on July 1, 2010.

An average household in Lakewood, for example, can expect to pay about $88 more a year on water services, officials said.

Officials in Norwalk, which buys 80% of its water from the district, say the city's water fund cannot support the increase without passing the cost on to customers.

"This issue is not dead yet," said Adriana Figueroa, administrative services manager for Norwalk. "We have lots of questions and we want answers -- we deserve them."

Cities and local water agencies have begun questioning the board's spending on projects, including a 12-mile-long pipeline for recycled water, and contributions it made toward building an "interpretive center" in the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary.

Art Aguilar, district manager for the central board, sympathized with customers, but insisted that "the money we get will be spent wisely" on projects that he said are more efficient to build during a recession, when costs have fallen.

"I do not disagree with their anger and being upset," Aguilar said. "If we didn't have to do it right now we wouldn't. . . . It's just one of those things. We have a bad economy, which means that the cost of building the recycled-water pipeline will be less than it would in a strong economy. So we'll save money in the long run." The pipeline project "was initially projected to cost about a total $110 million," he said. "We believe it will come in at less than that."

But Jeanne-Marie Bruno, general manager of Downey-based Park Water Co., a district customer that serves portions of Compton, Norwalk and Artesia, was not convinced that her customers would benefit directly from that project.

"We have lots of questions," she said. "Does this project make sense for our region? Are the right customers being billed for this project?"

Robb Whitaker, general manager of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, argued that this was not the time to raise fees. The agency manages groundwater for nearly 4 million residents of southern Los Angeles County, according to its website.

"In the worst of times," he said in a letter to Aguilar, "when our respective public and private customers are laying off employees and implementing mandatory furloughs and generally slashing their budgets, such an increase is unimaginable."

Some environmentalists took issue with the district's donation of $80,000 last year in support of a controversial proposal to build a $30-million interpretive center and parking lot in the Whittier Narrows wildlife sanctuary.

Aguilar said the district wants to use the proposed center for new student programs designed to enhance understanding of the San Gabriel River watershed and its water districts. He pointed out that as part of an effort to cut costs, the district did not donate money this year to the San Gabriel River Discovery Center.

Jim Odling, chairman of the Friends of the Whittier Narrows Natural Area, which opposes the center, said the environmental impact report on the project "indicates the real purpose of the center will be to serve as a fancy meeting place for water and government agencies."

"In other words," he said, "while the district claims to be so desperate for money it is raising surcharge fees, it managed to come up with $80,000 to help build an interpretive center nine times bigger than the one that exists there now."

The Commerce-based district supplies water to 2 million residents in 24 cities and unincorporated county areas. Each year, it provides about 60,000 acre-feet of imported water to its 227-square-mile service area.

The district "is doing everything it can to provide information," Aguilar said. "If we need to sit down and have more meetings and outreach, we will do that too."

"I understand that a 109% increase sounds horrible to people," he added. "But in the long run it will allow us to put together projects that will allow us to serve them better in the future."

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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