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Bill Cooper & Maria Gutzeit: Optimized water governance means better water service

Posted: August 15, 2016 4:38 p.m.
Updated: August 16, 2016 2:00 a.m.
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There is great potential for a new public water district in the Santa Clarita Valley.

As leaders from Newhall County Water District and Castaic Lake Water Agency continue to explore this bold idea, it’s important we outline potential benefits and challenges so you always know what a new water district can mean for you.

This column is part of a series that will dive into the specific elements of a potential new water district.

It outlines studies that examine a new governance structure to modernize, fully integrate and enhance local water management.

Our water districts are made up of a patchwork of boundaries (some more than 100 years old), archaic rules and oddities that defy modern governance.

Just look at these facts and peculiarities:

• About 40 percent of the Santa Clarita Valley — roughly 150,000 residents — does not vote directly for its retail water agency representatives.

• Roughly 5,000 residents live within one water agency but are served by another due to odd boundaries and geographic constraints.

• Across the region, some water agency directors are elected “at large,” some are elected by voters of a specific division and others are appointed.

• Some district boundaries look more like island chains than sensible borders.

Despite these quirks, we’ve worked hard to ensure these systems generally work well. To borrow an old phrase, “we’ve turned lemons into lemonade.”

But we can do better, and it’s our duty to explore how to improve and modernize water governance for Santa Clarita Valley residents.

That’s why we’ve studied a regional, division-based governance structure with support from demographic experts, the public and our boards of directors.

This study was shared in a public workshop this summer and identified these potential benefits of a regional, division-based structure.

• Neighbors electing neighbors: A division-based system will allow neighbors to elect neighbors to manage their water resources. This structure would join the small-town nature of our community with a modern approach to good governance.

• Greater accountability: All voters — for the first time in our region’s history — would be able to directly elect their water leaders, allowing for a new level of accountability to the public.

• Equal representation: The division-based system gives everyone in the valley an equal voice. With the same amount of representatives in all districts, no division is stronger — or weaker — than the next.

• Modernized governance: The division-based system would bring our region into the 21st century and create a model of good water governance. Part of the goal would be to eliminate inconsistencies and create clarity for residents and businesses.

• Continuity and consistency: Your rate structure, customer experience and water service will stay the same— or more likely, improve — as part of this transition.

This governance system would create three equally populated divisions. Voters would be responsible for electing directors residing within their specific division.

This would create a locally representative, but regionally integrated board of directors managing valley water resources.

The 14 elected board members of both Castaic Lake Water Agency and Newhall County Water District would initially sit on the new board to give a strong voice to all agencies.

These divisions are designed to meet several practical goals, including:

• Full compliance with California Voting Rights Act laws to ensure equitable minority representation and opportunity;

• Equal number of residents in each division;

• Designed along manmade or geographic landmarks to create logical boundaries.

Two alternative maps were studied as part of the governance study process. These maps are available for public review and comment at YourSCVWater.com.

The governance study was the first of many studies needed to fully explore a potential new public water district.

Next up, we will develop additional studies on financial issues, water service concepts and other elements that are critical to this exploration process.

We promise to keep you updated along the way.

In the meantime, please visit www.YourSCVWater.com for more information.

Bill Cooper is an elected member of the Castaic Lake Water Agency board of directors. Maria Gutzeit is an elected member of the Newhall County Water District board of directors. The two serve on a committee established by both agencies to explore ways to settle litigation, which resulted in merger discussions.

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