Community Editorial: Water District Responds to Activist’s Allegations

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There is a newfound interest in the inner workings of water agencies that is driven largely by a lack of knowledge of, and therefore curiosity about, their purpose and operations.

Most local and regional water districts are enterprise agencies. This means they operate and are largely financed in a manner similar to private business. Expenditures are offset primarily by water rates paid by ratepayers and other fees for specific services. Most water agencies are charged with providing a reliable and safe supply of water to users in their territory or protecting water supplies under their control.

For these agencies, public scrutiny and the “give and take” surrounding any large-scale project or major policy decision can be a good thing. When both sides present their viewpoints through an open and fact-based discussion, a refined project or better public policy can emerge.

On occasion, though, this process is undermined and the public ill-served by unsubstantiated claims, innuendo, personal attacks and erroneous information, as was recently the case in a community editorial posted in Voice of OC regarding Santa Margarita Water District and the proposed Cadiz Valley Water Conservation, Recovery & Storage Project.

The facts were, let’s say, underrepresented in Debbie Cook’s community editorial titled: “An Activist’s Take on the Cadiz Water Project.” The Santa Margarita Water District is conducting an exhaustive environmental review of the proposed Cadiz project. The district has complied with the law, and it has maintained an open and transparent process throughout.

Like most of South Orange County, the Santa Margarita Water District relies almost exclusively on imported water, which is purchased from the Metropolitan Water District or “Met.” Met brings water to Southern California from the Colorado River and the State Water Project.

Imported water from Met shares two qualities: (1) it is expensive, and (2) it is not guaranteed.

Already this year, California officials have notified Met and other water agencies that they will receive just 65% of their legally-entitled deliveries from the State Water Project because of the dry winter weather.

Even in wet years, this complex network of reservoirs, aqueducts and pumps is delivering far less than what is allowed because of environmental conditions and regulatory restrictions.

Leading experts also say an earthquake of 6.7 magnitude or greater would wipe out a significant portion of the State Water Project, leaving Santa Margarita Water District and other water districts with severe shortages.

Santa Margarita Water District’s other major source of supply, the Colorado River, also faces shortages amid increasing demand and recurring drought cycles.

Santa Margarita Water District has embarked on several innovative initiatives to diversify its supply and become less dependent on imported water. Surface storage (building new reservoirs) and expanding the application for recycled water are parts of these efforts, as is looking to ocean water desalination as an option.

But it must prepare for the day when imported water may be substantially reduced or no longer available. The Cadiz project is potentially one part of the solution. The proposed project would provide an average of up to 50,000 acre feet (1.6 billion gallons) of water per year, enough to provide a year’s supply of water for 200,000 people.

By managing a large, renewable aquifer in the Mojave Desert in San Bernardino County, the proposed project would capture billions of gallons of renewable, native groundwater that is currently being lost each year to evaporation and deliver it to Santa Margarita Water District and other water agencies.

The proposed project would also make available approximately 1 million acre-feet of underground storage capacity that could be used to conserve or bank imported water, virtually eliminating the high rates of water lost to evaporation at local surface reservoirs. The project is still being studied, and if built, it would have to meet all the rigorous requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act and obtain the needed permits to begin supplying water to Orange County and the Southern California region.

Contrary to Ms. Cook’s claim that the process up to now has somehow taken place with “no transparency” and no “public involvement,” the Santa Margarita Water District board of directors and its environmental consultant have held several public sessions about the proposed project in Orange and San Bernardino counties. They have also extended the period of time for the public to comment to ensure a complete airing of all concerns about it.

In December 2011, Santa Margarita Water District issued a nearly 3,000-page Draft Environmental Impact Report that explored each of the proposed project’s potential impacts. Using scientific analysis and in-depth reviews rather than conjecture, the report found the proposed project will avoid any significant impacts to desert resources, except for some short-term construction emissions.

Once all comments are received and reviewed, a final environmental impact report will be prepared, which is expected to be released later this year. At that time, the Santa Margarita Water District board of directors will make the decision as to whether the final report will be certified. Even if it is certified, Cadiz Inc. would still need to secure the appropriate permits to allow construction to go forward.

Santa Margarita Water District has sought out experts to conduct this environmental review. These are specialists who have gained their expertise in part by working on other similar projects. The environmental experts’ past experience is an asset rather than the liability Ms. Cook tries to make it.

I can understand why some critics find water districts to be attractive targets. There is low turnover in water agency elected boards of directors as well as among management and technical staff. And when there is movement in the ranks, the “newcomer” is usually from another water agency. This has created a world of specially skilled and deeply trained water experts who have ensured that we have reliable water supplies and high water quality. Admittedly, it also creates an environment where outsiders feel somewhat left out.

This may be one reason for the recent attention to transparency and openness at water districts. The public and the media alike want to know that their government operates in an open and fair manner, that no one is getting something for nothing, and there is an even playing field for vendors, ratepayers and the public at large.

More important, people want to rest assured that their water is safe to drink and that it will always flow when they turn on the tap. Luckily, most water districts in Orange County have embraced not only the letter of the law that requires fair and open meetings but also the spirit of the law by posting even the most minute detail of their operations, budgets and employee salaries on their websites.

In addition, they scrupulously comply with open meeting laws — contrary to Ms. Cook’s erroneous claim that they have failed to do so on occasion. For instance, the Santa Margarita Water District board of directors acted appropriately when it voted in closed session to initiate negotiations on the proposed Cadiz project.

In addition to its own legal counsel’s finding that this was appropriate, Santa Margarita Water District has obtained an independent opinion from outside legal counsel, which carefully explained that the district’s actions were based on case law and the fact that water rights are akin to property rights.

A degree of privacy during negotiations is necessary and anticipated. Even the harshest government skeptic can appreciate why the people we elect to serve our communities should be allowed to conduct these sorts of negotiations in private.

Imagine if you were forced to allow a prospective purchaser of your home to sit on your living room couch, listening in while you discussed how to craft a counter offer with your spouse and realtor.

This is what Ms. Cook would have had Santa Margarita Water District directors do.

These are the facts about Santa Margarita Water District and the proposed Cadiz Valley Water, Conservation, Recovery & Storage Project. While we may have differences of opinion about the best ways to meet the state’s and region’s water needs, I hope future discussions on this important topic are based in fact and avoid innuendo, personal attacks and erroneous information. It is what the public deserves.

Mr. Probolsky is a Voice of OC Community Editorial Board member and CEO of Probolsky Research LLC, an opinion research firm which counts Santa Margarita Water District among its many public- and private-sector clients.

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