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Amid scrutiny, water district will freeze water rates

April 26, 2012|By Sam Allen | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

A water district serving nearly four million residents in L.A. County announced Thursday that it intends to freeze rates for the first time since 2003.

The Water Replenishment District of Southern California's announcement came after a Times story this week highlighting the agency's recent rate hikes and ongoing battles with another local water agency, the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

"We want to be responsive to all our stakeholders," said Albert Robles, president of the WRD's board. "We are very transparent, and we explain everything. We go out of our way to do a good job."

The agency, which is based in Lakewood, monitors groundwater aquifers in the region and collects fees from groundwater pumpers. Its service area includes 43 cities in the southern half of Los Angeles County, from La Habra Heights to Manhattan Beach.

Since 2004, the agency's main assessment has grown from $134 to $244 per acre foot. The money is used to purchase new water to be infused back into the ground, thus "replenishing" the basin. Officials say past increases were driven primarily by the rising cost of imported water.

But the WRD has also been entangled in a series of legal and policy disputes with Central Basin in recent years, which have driven up legal costs. In the last four years alone, the WRD has paid over $2.3 million to attorneys litigating five different cases against Central Basin.

The districts have fought over everything from environmental regulations and rates to claims of cyber-squatting and trademark infringement. Both have paid for unusual PR campaigns and supported bills in the state Legislature that target the other side.

Central Basin, which wholesales imported water, has also increased its charges significantly in recent years. The agency's surcharges have shot up from $37 in 2004 to $90 this year, bringing the total cost of its wholesale water over $900 per acre foot.

Earlier this month, Central Basin announced it was freezing its rates and called on the WRD to do the same. "It's time all of us work together to put our communities first," Central Basin Board President Ed Vasquez said in a statement.

Both agencies were targeted for an audit recently by state Assemblyman Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

"They spend an enormous amount of time going after each other, when what they should be doing is working together to keep rates low," Lara said in a recent interview. His audit request -- which also includes the much larger Metropolitan Water District -- was approved in March.

Robles said the WRD would cut back on some programs and defer other costs in order to keep its replenishment assessment at its current level. He said the decision was a result of a series of public budget workshops held over the last several months.

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