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Feud between 2 obscure water agencies costs consumers

The Central Basin Municipal Water District and the Water Replenishment District of Southern California have more than doubled their fees in recent years as they spend large amounts of time and money battling each other.

April 25, 2012|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

Bell resident Robert Mackin is frustrated that his monthly water rate keeps rising, by about 50% in the last few years.

He writes the check to his water provider, Golden State Water Co. But he is actually served by six separate agencies that each play a role in delivering his water — and charging him for the service.

"I'll be honest, I don't really have an idea of what all these agencies do … it's hard to understand," Mackin said. "When the bill comes in, I look at the total and write the check."

And he's not alone.

Two of those water districts — which serve more than a third of the nearly 10 million residents of L.A. County — have more than doubled their fees in recent years while spending significant amounts of time and money battling each other in a series of lawsuits, legislative showdowns and unusual PR campaigns.

The water war between the Central Basin Municipal Water District and Water Replenishment District of Southern California has been largely unknown to the public because neither agency delivers water directly to customers, and their charges are rolled into the bills sent out by retailers. But local officials say it has become an increasingly costly fiasco.

"It's just a huge embarrassment for the region," said Ken Farfsing, city manager of Signal Hill. "It's almost like they've forgotten what they're fighting about and want to win regardless of the costs."

The conflict offers a window into the highly decentralized world of water operations in Southern California. Across the region, hundreds of different public agencies are involved in the purchase, sale, distribution and delivery of water to residents. Many of them overlap in their service areas and functions, and most operate under little public scrutiny.

The size and complexity of the network can make it difficult to match increases in residents' water bills to specific expenses incurred by the districts.

The increases in Mackin's bill are due in part to rising charges by his water provider, Golden State. But it also includes fees from Central Basin, the WRD, the state Department of Water Resources, which manages the state water project, the Metropolitan Water District, which imports water to Southern California, and L.A. County, which plays a role in local groundwater replenishment.

Critics argue that the huge bureaucracy leads to duplicated programs and wasteful spending, especially when individual agencies clash over new projects and legal issues.

In local water circles, the Central Basin-WRD feud has become a prime example of that problem.

After Central Basin sponsored a bill in the state Legislature that would give it new authority over its rival, the Water Replenishment District supported legislation that would strip Central Basin of some of its powers.

Central Basin hired an outside consultant to produce positive articles about its projects and post them on Google News, including several that took issue with policies of the Water Replenishment District. The WRD bought up domain names such as "centralbasin.net," which it used to publicize critical news stories and letters about Central Basin.

Last year alone, the two agencies were adversaries in five separate court cases, battling everything from authority over groundwater to charges of cybersquatting and trademark infringement.

Amid all the fighting, the districts have failed to accomplish what officials at both agencies say is a crucial mission: increasing the amount of local groundwater storage. Such a move could result in lower rates for customers in L.A. County as well as significant water conservation savings.

Even though they strongly defend their positions, the heads of both agencies acknowledge that the legal and policy disputes have proved costly.

"If I were to talk to somebody on the street about it, I would say 'Sorry… Sorry that we're spending your money on litigation, but we have to fight for your interests,' " Central Basin General Manager Art Aguilar said.

Robb Whitaker, the head of the Water Replenishment District, called the situation "tragic."

"This whole thing is costing the public money and precious time," he said

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Because water is such a precious commodity in Southern California, a massive network of agencies has formed to help maintain the region's supply. While voters elect some of the agencies' governing boards, many residents have little idea what they do.

The bureaucracy has grown over the last century as the region struggled with water shortages. Many districts formed after World War II, when the surging population and excessive pumping led to a rapid drop in local groundwater levels. Others were created to help import needed water from outside the state.

For decades, Central Basin and the WRD operated out of the same office in Downey. They shared the same general manager and a staff that totaled about six.

But the two agencies split in 1992 after a disagreement between their respective boards.

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