A proposed law designed to keep water bills from skyrocketing has passed a state Senate committee, but opponents vow to fight the measure they say is a "political power grab."
Senate Bill 1386, authored by Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, would remove barriers to storing groundwater in the Central Basin and would allow for underground water reserves to protect against high rates in dry periods. Area cities and water agencies have been embroiled in legal battles over how and by whom the water should be stored.
The bill unanimously passed the Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee last week.
Supporters for Lowenthal's bill include the cities of Lakewood, South Gate, Norwalk, Paramount and Torrance, along with the Long Beach Board of Water Commissioners, the Southeast Water Coalition and Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce.
The basin water rights and sales of water to basin customers are managed by the Central Basin Municipal Water District.
SB 1386 would clarify state law by establishing that one entity, the Water Replenishment District of Southern California, is responsible for managing groundwater in the region.
"Without this bill, continued efforts by the Central Basin Municipal Water District will lead to more and more lawsuits, create greater and greater legal bills, and result in higher rates for our region," said Lowenthal in a written statement following the committee vote.
"Enough is enough," the
However, the Central Basin Municipal Water District has joined other southeast county communities in opposing the bill, contending it would undermine court decisions. It also would lead, according to the opposing coalition, to higher-priced water.
The main concern, according to the Central Basin Municipal Water District, is that its powers - spelled out in the Water Act of 1911 - would be transferred to the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.
WRD is embroiled in litigation for allegedly failing to do its job of replenishing the basin, according to Central Basin general manager Art Aguilar.
"SB 1386 is nothing more than a political power grab by WRD that would put the entire basin at risk," said Aguilar in a written statement.
Robb Whitaker, general manager of the Water Replenishment District, wasn't available for comment.
However, Kevin Wattier, general manager at the Long Beach Water Department, said the Lowenthal bill is supported "fully and actively."
He said the Central Basin had filed "hostile litigation," attempting, in part, to assert jurisdiction over Long Beach, Compton and Los Angeles.
The Central Basin currently has about 233,000 acre-feet of water that is allocated to various agencies based on past court cases.
Lowenthal's bill, supporters contend, will clarify which agency has jurisdiction.
"He's simply clearing up duplicate authorities," Wattier said.
An acre-foot of water is approximately 326,000 gallons, enough to meet the water needs of two average families in and around their homes for one year, said Lowenthal spokesman Keith Higginbotham.
However, the Central Basin has about 330,000 additional acre-feet of underground storage capacity in the basin aquifer, he added.
This additional underground capacity could be used by local agencies to store water more cheaply, said Higginbotham.
According to Lowenthal, the problem with current law is that it grants both water replenishment districts and municipal water districts the ability to "store" water, but without differentiating between groundwater and surface water.
Existing law also grants water replenishment districts the ability to "manage and control water" while municipal water districts are only allowed to "store" water.
"Current law - the state Water Code - is in conflict because it grants two different entities broad authority to do the same thing," Lowenthal said Friday. "The Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee agreed, voting unanimously that the appropriate entity to handle groundwater storage is the Water Replenishment District."
Jurisdictional boundaries overlap between the service areas of the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and the Central Basin Municipal Water District, according to Lowenthal's bill.
SB 1386, according to Lowenthal, emphasizes that the Central Basin Municipal Water District "does not have authority to manage the storage of groundwater." That's because there is a water rights judgment in place, and there's a water replenishment district that has authority to deal with groundwater supplies.
SB 1386 now moves to the full Senate for a vote - sometime before June 1 - according to Lowenthal legislative director Joshua Tooker.
"This is far from over," Aguilar warned. "Making it out of committee is one thing, but this bill with all of its flaws has a long way to go before it is finally passed."