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Blake Deal: LADWP has more immediate issues to fix before SB 350’s climate concerns

(Kelly Brennan/Daily Bruin senior staff)

By Blake Deal

March 15, 2016 12:00 a.m.

Good intentions are great until they lead to unfavorable outcomes. Unfortunately, California’s state legislature’s good intentions may push Los Angeles residents into a tough spot.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power proposed to increase its utility rates for Los Angeles residents, including those in Westwood, to compensate for costs associated with implementing the state’s climate change mandates found in Senate Bill No. 350 and to help repair Los Angeles’ water infrastructure. The most notable demands of this legislation include public utility providers having to generate 50 percent of their electricity using clean energy and doubling statewide energy efficiency, both by 2030.

Water rates will increase 4.7 percent each year for the next five years to pay for water infrastructure while power rates will increase by nearly 4 percent over the same time period to help pay for this state legislation.

However, the rate hike will not be enough. Although the LADWP needs to increase costs on utilities, the extra funds generated by the current proposal will be distributed disproportionately toward fulfilling climate change mandates that will have no immediate benefit while water pipes continue to deteriorate and burst. No matter how one approaches the issue, rate hikes are necessary, but the plan forces money to be directed toward the state’s interests and not the city’s.

These mandates could not have come at a worse time. Los Angeles’ water infrastructure poses a far greater and more imminent threat to the residents of this city than the environmental impact of carbon dioxide emissions. Instead of failing to fix both problems at once, the state of California should suspend Senate Bill No. 350 until the LADWP is able to fix at-risk water pipes.

Through the actions of state legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown, Los Angeles now faces greater regulations and greater costs impeding our ability to fix the city’s water pipes.

Any UCLA student who remembers the water main burst near Sunset Boulevard during summer 2014, which flooded significant portions of campus and cost the university about $13 million in damages, has first-hand experience of Los Angeles’ failing water infrastructure. This water main was just one of the more than 100 leaks Westwood experienced between 2010 and 2014 due to old pipes. The LADWP needs to generate more revenue to prevent bursts like these from happening, yet the state mandates constrain Los Angeles in a way that only allows some, not all, water pipes throughout the city to receive repairs.

This rate hike proposal is too little too late. Either residents will have to pay extra to replace old water mains when they burst, like UCLA in summer 2014, or pay more due to state-sanctioned fines.

Rui Wang, an assistant professor of urban planning at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said these current rate hikes are necessary but ill-timed.

“I think these rate hikes should have been implemented years ago.” Wang said “We do not have enough money to update the current water infrastructural system. Rate hikes are not favored by the public because no one likes to pay more for water and power.”

In light of these additional costs, Los Angeles residents, including UCLA students, will have to pay more for water and power without any significant benefit in return thanks to state legislators.

The climate change bill’s author, state Senate leader Kevin de León, said back in October that the bill will hopefully do away with negative stereotypes about environmentalism being only for the rich. It is difficult to imagine how increased utility rates, the threat of heavy state-sanctioned fines and the looming water infrastructure costs spurred on by this legislation will do anything but encourage the stereotypes he wished to eliminate.

The water rate hike will generate $330 million in revenue devoted toward Los Angeles’ water infrastructure, while the power hike will generate $720 million. Twenty percent of revenue generated by the power rate hike will go toward Los Angeles’ general fund and other costs, while the rest, equivalent to $576 million, will be devoted to fulfilling California’s Senate Bill No. 350.

The state ought not require cities like Los Angeles to support ambitious climate change policies in the face of immediate problems. Once Los Angeles solves its water infrastructure, it will be in a better place to meet ambitious energy standards.

The LA Times reports the city needs a total of $1.34 billion to fix “at-risk” water mains by 2025. What is ironic about all this is the department would be much closer to reaching this $1.34 billion target if it were not for Gov. Brown’s climate change mandates. Instead of a mere $330 million to fix Los Angeles’ water infrastructure, LADWP would have had a combined $906 million in funds from the $576 million saved from being allocated to the mandates. Regardless of whether or not devoting funds generated by power rate hikes toward water infrastructure would be the best decision, the LADWP ought to have the right to freely act in the interests of the city than to be constrained by state legislature.

If the city does not meet the mandate’s standards it will face large fines and a possible downgraded credit rating resulting in an even greater rate hike. Meanwhile Los Angeles’ water infrastructure will only continue to get worse.

The residents of Los Angeles are in a catch-22: either approve the DWP’s plan and allow the city’s water infrastructure to get worse, resulting in more leaks and far greater costs in the future or reject the plan and face state imposed fines resulting in far greater costs. The LADWP has no choice but to obey state legislation while Los Angeles residents have no choice but to further sacrifice themselves to their state overlords.

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Blake Deal | Opinion columnist
Blake Deal was a columnist during the 2015-2016 school year.
Blake Deal was a columnist during the 2015-2016 school year.
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