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L.A. County water district plans to freeze rates

The proposal by the Water Replenishment District of Southern California comes amid a costly PR and legal battle with another local water agency, the Central Basin Municipal Water District, which recently announced its own rate freeze.

April 27, 2012|By Sam Allen, Los Angeles Times

A water district serving nearly 4 million residents in Los Angeles County announced Thursday it intends to freeze rates for the first time since 2003.

The Water Replenishment District of Southern California's announcement came after a Los Angeles Times article Wednesday highlighting the agency's recent rate hikes and 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 to $244 per acre foot from $115. The money is used to purchase water to be infused into the ground, thus replenishing the aquifers. 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 more than $2.3 million to attorneys litigating five cases against Central Basin.

The districts have fought over such things as environmental regulations, rates, and charges of cyber-squatting and trademark infringement. Both have paid for unusual PR campaigns and sponsored bills in the state Legislature that target each other.

Central Basin, a water wholesaler based in Commerce, has also increased its fees 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 to more than $900 per acre-foot.

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.

An audit of both agencies was recently requested 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 of Southern California, 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 proposed rate freeze, which must still be approved by the full WRD board, was a result of a series of public budget workshops held over the last several months. If it's approved, existing rates would remain in effect in fiscal 2012-13.

But while the districts appear to be in agreement on holding rates steady, tensions are still clear.

Valerie Howard, a Central Basin spokeswoman, said Thursday that the WRD was "obviously following our lead" in freezing rates.

Robles, meanwhile, expressed doubt that Central Basin would honor its pledge to keep surcharges at its current level, calling the district's previous announcement a "political ploy."

sam.allen@latimes.com

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