Can MWDOC Find a Reason to Exist? Looking Back to 2013 and Gus Ayer
Editor’s note: Gus Ayer, the former mayor of Fountain Valley, was probably Orange County’s top progressive political strategist and activist. He passed away on Feb. 13, 2013. At that time he was about to unveil a major grassroots campaign to inform the county’s water ratepayers and their elected public officials that the nearly $1 billion ocean desalination plant proposed for construction in Huntington Beach was unnecessary and would cost about $5 billion extra over the next 30 years. That campaign, which he played a major role in organizing, is still underway. He submitted this column to the Surf City Voice a few days before he died.
Analysis and Commentary
By Gus Ayer
Special to the Surf City Voice
Sometimes it’s fascinating to watch a public agency as it flounders around trying to find a reason to exist.
Lately, the Municipal Water District of Orange County (MWDOC) is flailing like a beached whale.
After a Brooke Edwards Stagg OC Register article exposed the secretive nature of negotiations with Poseidon Resources for “Take or Pay” contracts on January 22, MWDOC scrambled into damage control mode.
- Their General Manager was terminated after a hastily-called special Executive Session on February 1st, and is now relegated to a back room until his contract expires a few months from now. Meanwhile an interim General Manager takes over his duties.
- A press release linked to the term sheet of the Poseidon’s proposed “Take-or-Pay” contracts and a report on the costs of new pipeline projects was released and posted on Poseidon’s website. Sadly, it lacks the details that would allow any accurate analysis of the long term costs of the proposed plant.
- MWDOC is coming under increased scrutiny as a grassroots coalition begins a major public outreach program to advise ratepayers how much they will pay for expensive desalinated water they don’t need.
- IRWD Director Peer Swan publicly chastised them at a recent meeting for ignoring all of the efforts that had been made on a regional level to provide for water reliability, warning that they were recklessly advocating a project that would become a “stranded asset”
- Simmering disputes between different regions of the county threaten to erupt again, which would lead for another round of talks about cities seceding from MWDOC or just eliminating this agency and their bureaucracy.
Just What is MWDOC?
The hierarchy of Water districts can be confusing.
We pay our water bills to local water agencies, including many individual cities, independent agencies like the Irvine Ranch Water District, and even one privately owned water company, Golden State Water.
One regional agency manages our groundwater supplies (Orange County Water District).
Another super regional agency manages imported water for most of Southern California, the Metropolitan Water District, commonly known as “MET”.
Then we have MWDOC, which was established in 1951 to administer purchases of imported water from Met on behalf of smaller Orange County cities and unincorporated areas. MWDOC’s original role role was just as a middleman between MET and 16 small cities with a population of around 80,000. Three cities (Anaheim, Santa Ana, and Fullerton) were big enough to buy water directly from MWD.
In the boom days after World War II, MET was seeking customers to buy the water from the Colorado River Aqueduct. Orange County developers were looking for more water to meet the demands for swathes of development that would replace agriculture and ranching.
What Does MWDOC Do?
MWDOC has seven elected directors. They appoint four directors to the MET board. They share a headquarters building with the Orange County Water District in Fountain Valley.
MWDOC holds seven redundant meetings a month, each of which guarantees a $221.62 daily payment to each of its seven directors, who typically attend all committee meetings and also receive benefits and health insurance. Directors also travel, with a budget over $30,000 a year to attend local, state and national conferences (not including their meeting payments). If you are one of the directors appointed to MET, you also get paid to attend MET meetings.
In a recent year one director, Director and MET rep Brett Barbre was paid $51,859 for attending 242 meetings and also cost rate-payers $17,435 for benefits, including pension and health insurance. This wasn’t his day job. He also is a lobbyist for clients like trash-hauler Athens Services.
In an OC Register Watchdog article, he is described as a “political operative,” and campaign finance records show that Barbre was paid $20,000 plus expenses for consulting on Troy Edgar’s 2012 campaign for State Assembly.
In addition to doing the accounting for MET purchases and sending four people to attend meetings of MET’s 51 person board, MWDOC has struggled to expand its mission to include:
- Administering Water Efficiency grants for Orange County cities trying to do the bare minimum of effort under statewide mandates.
- A few education programs
- Sponsoring breakfasts, dinners and seminars where vendors, consultants and lobbyists can hobnob with elected officials, all subsidized with ratepayer funds and agency staff time.
MWDOC and Desalination
MWDOC directors seem determined to play in the world desalination: turning sea water into drinking water, although MWDOC has no construction management experience and no experience in operating water systems. We might attribute this ambition to their sense of impotence with the bigger players, boredom, or the need to justify their existence. Beware of arrogance combined with incompetence—it often leads to disastrous outcomes.
It’s unclear that MWDOC has any legal authority to undertake any efforts in this area.
Historically, the cities and water agencies that belong to MWDOC have chafed at their budgets and MWDOC’s financial management. The underlying tensions became so high several years ago that South County agencies looked at seceding from MWDOC to form their own agency. In a settlement agreement, MWDOC committed to a new compact that made several changes,
1.) MWDOC agreed to change the way it billed for its services to lower costs for South County agencies.
2.) MWDOC agreed to a specific list of services that they would undertake and differentiated between Core and Choice services
3.) MWDOC agreed to listen to South County agencies regarding appointments to the MET Board.
4.) MWDOC agreed to reduce their bloated reserve funds.
Under this agreement it’s very clear that spending on desalination projects is listed under the Choice category, where cities have a right to participate. Although Director Brett Barbre speaks about changing what’s in each category, the actual agreement signed by the cities has no mechanism to do this. Barbre favors placing ocean desalination in the Core category, but any attempt by MWDOC to redefine Desalination projects as core projects would likely lead to renewed secession attempts or lawsuits.
Calls for Abolishing MWDOC
How many water agencies do we need, each with their own expenses for directors and their benefits, lobbyists, consultants and public relations staffs? MWDOC directors recently discussed a project to renovate the exhibits in the hallway that they share with OCWD, with a budget of $1.3 million dollars plus staff time.
The Orange County Grand Jury recommended consolidating water agencies to reduce costs and provide services more efficiently. Others have recommended that MWDOC reduce its role back to the simple accounting functions it was originally designed to achieve, with its other functions transferred to other agencies with a strong record of success, like the Orange County Water District and the Irvine Ranch Water District.
We think that’s a great idea. MWDOC has outlived its usefulness and their continued mission creep wastes the ratepayers’ dollars and creates mischief. MWDOC’s functions can easily be absorbed into other agencies and it’s time to start a process to sunset this relic of a bygone era.
Afterthought: Ironically, the Orange County Water District has become the lead agency and advocate for the proposed but still unapproved Poseidon ocean desalination project, and MWDOC issued a water reliability study that put the project in last place among needed alternative water sources for Orange County.