February 16, 2006 - From the February, 2006 issue

Deaton Tracks Progress of Prop O Programs From New Vantage Point – LADWP's GM

As chief legislative analyst for the L.A. City Council for over a decade, Ron Deaton had a hand in nearly all laws and ordinances adopted in the city of L.A., not the least of which was the landmark Prop O initiative, which provides $500 million for stormwater treatment. However, for more than a year Mr. Deaton has served in a new role as general manager of the Department of Water and Power. As DWP head, Mr. Deaton is involved in the implementation of Prop O, as well as the myraid functions of the nation's largest public utility. MIR was pleased to speak with Mr. Deaton about the progress of implementing Prop O locally and about its relationship with infrastructure initiatives and other stormwater programs statewide. Finally, Mr. Deaton and the DWP are also working to maintain reasonable rates as well as to help Mayor Villargaigosa realize his goal of making L.A. the "greenest big city in America."

Ron Deaton

You are now the general manager of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, but once upon a time you were the City's CLA. In that capacity you help shepherd the drafting and passage of Prop O, a half-billion dollar city measure to deal with storm water runoff and clean water. The voters endorsed that bond, and proposals have now come into the city requesting use of those funds. How would you assess the significance of the voters' endorsement and the potential of L.A.'s Prop O?

I think it's a very healthy beginning to the city's efforts to address the issue of stormwater runoff. It's kind of a combination opportunity and problem. Stormwater presents a problem to the extent that obviously has an impact on the L.A. River, various creeks and eventually the quality of the beaches and the health of the ocean. But, it's also an opportunity to be able to capture that water and use it in the long-term to put it back in the groundwater or use it for other purposes to help meet the need for more potable water and, as a result, increase our water supply. I think it's a very far-reaching look by the citizens to vote to begin the process for better utilizing this water supply.

What's the distance between promise and reality regarding the implementation of the provisions and expectations for Prop O? How do we know the money will be used well and efficiently?

We have a series of built-in safeguards to make sure the money is used correctly. There's an administrative oversight committee made up of the city's administrative office, the budget office, the CLA, the mayor's office, and the Board of Public Works to make sure the projects are done in a timely fashion. Also, there's a group of citizen participants who and ensure that the money is also being spent in the best pragmatic way to correct the trash issues in the water and meet the requirements of the Clean Water Act, as well as to look at innovative ways to use storm water for parks and the greening of parts of Los Angeles. Finally, the Council and the mayor are the ultimate arbitrators.

As you mentioned, various proposals have been submitted for the first round of funding. What should our readers pay attention to in order to assess whether their hopes and expectations for Prop O are being met?

First off, in the neighborhood of 10 to 20 percent of the money is to give every local storm drain a way of capturing the trash that is caught up in the runoff and to prevent that trash from traveling farther down the storm drains and eventually into the L.A. River or the ocean. That effort should be moving ahead very soon.

Then people should look at the quality and creativity of projects to divert storm water to more productive uses, whether it's greening an area, creating a wetlands, or bringing the water to a groundwater discharge area – generally, the ability to pick water out of the flow and use it on the land before it runs out of a drain and into the ocean.

Given that the state, the governor and Assembly speaker have made infrastructure a priority for the state in 2006, does Prop O provide a prototype for how the state might approach forming coalitions of support for infrastructure investments? Are there lessons to be learned by the state from L.A.'s experiences with Prop O?

I don't want to presume to tell the state how to approach their bonding. They've done fairly well with propositions 13, 40, and 50 on the parks and water initiatives. But, I do believe that the experiences of propositions 40 and 50 combined with our experiences indicate a body of support for doing the kinds of projects to ensure the cleanliness and the safety of water and the better utilization of water. And I think that the experience that we went through as a nation with Katrina may illustrate the catastrophic results of neglecting infrastructure. That should be able to bring together a reasonable coalition to indicate that infrastructure, whether it's water, transportation, flood control, or whatever, will get support if it's well thought-out.

Moving from the city to the regional level, the city of L.A. stepped forward on wastewater, but the true success of such a program depends on cooperation within the region. What is the status of those efforts?


I think one really fascinating thing about Prop O has been the interest up and down the state in what Los Angeles did, how they did it, and a willingness and desire to try to do something similar. I've heard of San Diego, Orange, Ventura County – a whole host of places – that heard about the approach we took and are looking at things similar to Prop O to address their own storm water issues.

Not to invoke an old quote of Jerry Brown's, but isn't there a carrying capacity for L.A.'s ability to meet projected population growth? Can we do an adequate job with our infrastructure if another Chicago is to be laid on top of L.A.?

I believe that we have the ability, but it's a function of more than just the city of Los Angeles. The state has to step up to some of its responsibilities relative to transportation, movement of goods – there's whole host of things that I don't believe the city by itself can do everything necessary to meet those challenges. But I think that if the state does the proper job of looking at infrastructure needs, ensuring the right kind of transportation system, both on the highways and mass transit, and the water system, then we can handle population growth. I don't think there's been a statewide effort since Jerry Brown's father was governor to address these issues. Yes, I think we can do our part, but our part alone is not going to hack it.

Give us a report on the agenda and challenges facing DWP, and tell us which is more challenging as a job – managing and responding to the needs of 15 City Council members or running DWP.

I think the department has always done a fine job. The citizens should be pleased that our rates are about 25 to 30 percent less than our private company competitors. Our electric supply is more reliable and we're in control of our own generation so there won't be blackouts in Los Angeles this summer or any future summer. The department has done a good job of making sure the water from the groundwater, the Owens Valley, and state water projects all provide a very safe and reliable source of water. Obviously, on the water side we have major expenditures on covering reservoirs and ensuring that we comply with all drinking water regulations. That ends up costing more money, and we are in the process of laying all of that our for the mayor and City Council and we will have a review by the neighborhood councils.

On the power side, the most depressing issue the last couple of months has been the unbelievable increase in the cost natural gas. It's put tremendous financial pressures on the city and the DWP. Other utilities have a way of passing that through to customers as the price fluctuates. But that was frozen for us some years ago. We're looking at what we might or might not do in that area.

The PUC and California Energy Commission have set as a goal a 17 percent reserve of generations of IOUs for the private utilities, and we are at something like the 23 percent. So, our reserve is substantial, our rates are the lowest, and our reliability is the best. We're trying to keep ourselves in that position. Which of the jobs is more challenging or complicated? It's day to day. It's a different kind of job. I loved the other job and I love this job.

You've always been interested and involved in water issues. Regarding DWP's relationship to the Metropolitan Water District and the transition that organization is going through, what's your view of MWD from the perch you're at now?

The city of Los Angeles, the department and William Mulholland were instrumental in the creation of the MWD, and 80 percent of the first bonds to create the Colorado River Aqueduct were paid for by the city. So, we have been, for generations, believers of regional solutions to water issues and we continue that view. The MWD has served Southern California well in providing a very reliable source of water both from the Colorado River and the State Water Project. Obviously, there's a number of other agencies that have different needs and requirements, and that provides for interesting discussions about how the costs should be shared, how the water should be shared, who pays for what and when. This is always a continuing saga, and it continues today.


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