Pasadena needs to stop neglecting water. Since 1967 when the Pasadena Water Department (PWD) was swallowed up in a new consolidated Pasadena Water & Power Department (PWP), the water side has suffered. The results of that neglect are crippling, as is now apparent, and must be corrected for the sake of future generations.
The Pasadena Water Department was established in 1912 when Pasadena took over the facilities of the three pioneer land and water companies that served early Pasadena. The Light and Power Department had already been established in 1905, but the PWD served as a stand-alone, independent city department until 1967 when City Manager John Phillips recommended consolidating the two departments into one joint agency, the Pasadena Water and Power Department. It was a controversial move with several city officials expressing the concern that it would lead to a lack of proper oversight and focus on the critically important water issue. To placate those concerns, the Board of City Directors (City Council) agreed that the General Manager of the new department would alternate between the water side and the power business. The first General Manager of the consolidated Pasadena Water and Power Department was John Behner, a water engineer. Behner didn’t last long in the role, though, expressing his frustration with the lack of focus on water when he resigned in 1970.The next GM was T. M. Goodrich from the power side and then Karl Johnson from the water side, but by the mid-1980s, that succession plan was discarded, and no GM with water expertise has headed PWP since then.
Other Southern California cities that have municipal utilities have followed the same pattern of joint water and power operations, modelled on the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. But there is an inevitability in the power division receiving the bulk of attention and focus because the expenses and revenues from electric operations are many times greater than those from underpriced water. Electricity is flashier and more innovative.
In the era of climate change, that calculus changes. Developing a resilient water program is one of the greatest challenges facing Southern California and Pasadena in particular. In this challenging era, Pasadena should stop treating water as a neglected stepchild.
The Pasadena Water Department had great accomplishments and demonstrated Southern California leadership during the independent era. During that fifty-five-year period, the Pasadena Water Department consolidated the early water entities, introduced improved water treatment methodologies, spearheaded the development of the Metropolitan Water District and the Colorado River Aqueduct, and helped shape the State Water Project. In the 1940s it worked with local pumpers and the court to develop a safe yield water adjudication to end the decline in the Raymond groundwater basin underneath Pasadena. In the fifty-five years since 1967, the accomplishments have been meager. PWP has allowed the groundwater levels to continue their decline to ominous levels. PWP’s program to develop recycled water from the Glendale/LA treatment plant has fallen apart after 25 years and more than $20 million in expenses. The aging infrastructure program has stalled, and maintenance of critical facilities like Sunset Reservoir has been neglected.
There’s no question about it. PWPs water planning and implementation capability has shriveled under the benign negligence of successive general managers. PWP’s recently approved Water System and Resources Plan, their $425 million 25-year plan, reveals the results of that weakness. It was developed by consultants with little staff direction and fails to recognize critical local concerns, especially the decline of the Raymond Basin and the need for more aggressive conservation programs and rate-restructuring. Instead, it concentrates on maximizing groundwater pumping without any well-defined program for replenishing the basin. It’s a prescription for disaster. Maybe that catastrophe will be one generation away, but it is inevitable if prompt changes aren’t made to face the severity of the crisis.
Currently both the PWP general manager and water division chief positions are vacant. The job description for the water division head has been posted. Despite the enormous challenges Pasadena faces, it calls for a middle level caretaker with a pay scale that is inadequate to attract the top talent that will be necessary to resolve Pasadena’s water crisis.
There’s a simple solution: reestablish the Pasadena Water Department as a separate department with strong management and direction. Build a new planning and managerial structure that focuses on the challenges of climate change and resilient water. Give water the attention it merits.
Tim Brick served on the Pasadena Utility Advisory Commission from 1979 to 1993 and represented Pasadena on the board of Directors of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California from 1985 to 2012. He served as the elected chairman of that board from 2006 to 2010.