By Nick Diamantides
Last week, the Signal Tribune reported on a lawsuit filed by the cities of Downey, Cerritos and Signal Hill against the Water Replenishment District (WRD). The lawsuit alleges that WRD violated state law by unfairly raising the replenishment assessment (RA) it charges to cities in the Central Basin for every acre-foot of water they extract from the ground. The cities are hoping to get a reimbursement for about $19 million from WRD.
In the lawsuit, the three cities assert that the RA charged to the 10 cities in the Central Basin subsidizes the costs of groundwater cleanup and replenishment in WRD’s West Coast Basin, which requires far more expensive work. Robb Whitaker, WRD general manager, disputed that assertion. “That allegation really oversimplifies a study that was done and really doesn’t include the whole picture,” he said. “The consultant in that study stated that this is an analysis of WRD’s budget and does not include other factors such as the geology that would relate to the cost of replenishing the basins.”
Without getting into lengthy technical, geological descriptions, Whitaker explained that the Central Basin and the West Coast Basin are actually two sub-basins of a larger one. He noted that, while the two sub-basins are separated by an earthquake fault, the aquifers are still connected to each other. “They (the plaintiffs) looked at how much money was being spent above ground, but they didn’t look at what’s happening underground and why. When WRD was formed, there was a uniform assessment created,” he said. “There have been two failed legislative attempts to create separate assessments. The fact is that water flows from one sub-basin to another and what we do in the West Coast Basin also benefits the Central Basin.”
Whitaker noted that the lawsuit does not take into account technical issues related to the natural and artificial replenishment of the two sub-basins, but when those issues were considered more than 50 years ago, WRD was created with the mandate to charge a uniform RA to pumpers in both the Central and West Coast Basins. “It’s law that we have to charge a uniform assessment,” he said. “There are dozens of other issues that would be involved in separating the assessments as well, such as investments made in both basins that would have to be untangled.”
WRD Board President Sergio Calderon disputed other aspects of the lawsuit. He insisted that Downey Deputy City Manager Desi Alvarez was wrong in asserting that WRD’s RA increase from $140 to $205 per acre-foot in the past several years was unjustified. “His statement is misleading because it completely ignores the fact that the cost WRD pays for replenishment water has increased 104 percent during that same period of time,” he said.
Alvarez also told the Signal Tribune recently that WRD spends “a little over half” of its budget on water purchases. “That is simply not true,” Calderon said. “Nearly 75 percent of WRD’s budget is a direct pass-through of the cost of replenishment water, and that cost does not include what we must spend on groundwater clean-up and monitoring the health and safety of the basins.”
Calderon added, “The District works hard to ensure that we engage and inform all of our stakeholders about what we are doing. Our recent budget process is a good example of that. We didn’t just post notices of our five public workshops. We informed all elected officials in the 43 cities in our District, along with their city managers, public works directors and water managers. We met individually and in small groups with any stakeholder or interested party.”
Calderon insisted that WRD has the most transparent budgeting process of any public agency in the state. “How we raise and spend the public’s money is an open book for all to see,” he said.
Anatole Falagan, deputy general manager of the Long Beach Water Department, agreed that WRD’s budget process is transparent. (Long Beach is also in the Central Basin and has not joined the three cities that are suing WRD.) Falagan explained that the Long Beach Water Department asked for a meeting with WRD’s management and finance staff to get a better understanding of the District’s proposed budget costs and what it meant for their customers. “WRD was very open and informative in their meeting,” he said. “The impacts of imported water cost to the WRD budget were very significant but necessary to maintain our groundwater basins.”
Calderon also disputed Alvarez’s assertion that WRD spends tens of millions of dollars on non-replenishment activities. “That number is absurd, and the examples he cites are examples of water-related activities,” he insisted. “The District sponsored the development of a regional Water Badge program for the Boy Scouts of America. We support the Watershed Education program of the Aquarium of the Pacific and the California Science Center. Over 60,000 kids visit those programs each year and learn about the importance of water and water conservation.”
Finally, Calderon addressed Alvarez’s claim that WRD should not be spending its money on lobbying legislators. “We would be derelict to not have advocates representing the interests of the District, as do all agencies and municipalities, including the City of Downey,” he said. “The District’s advocacy efforts have directly resulted in the District positioning itself to receive nearly $4 million in state and federal funding this year. That’s $4 million that will not come from local groundwater producers.”
Calderon added that WRD advocates also worked to increase funding for recycled-water projects from $100 million to $1 billion on the State water bond initiative. “WRD will clearly share in that increased funding,” he stressed.
Calderon said he was proud of the District and the way it operates. “We are a model of transparency and openness, and that’s not just me saying it,” he said. “The way we manage the public’s money has translated into national and statewide recognition for six years in a row by the Government Finance Officers Association and the California Society of Municipal Finance Officers. Those awards are emblematic of how the District is viewed by the governmental finance community.”