At the bottom of the ballot on Nov. 4 there’s a contest that few voters may know much about, but it affects something they use every day and that’s water.
Since 1996, Carol Kwan has served on the West Basin Municipal Water District representing the South Bay. If she wins re-election on Nov 6, Kwan would embark on her fifth consecutive four-year term.
While they normally fall below the public eye, water issues in Southern California have a long and sordid history ever since the first pipeline brought freshwater from the north. Today, roughly two-thirds of Southern California tap water is imported either from the San Joaquin Basin near Sacramento or the Colorado River at an enormous cost to taxpayers. In the South Bay the percentage of imported water is closer to 80 percent.
Over the past 10 years, West Basin officials have been exploring a possible seawater desalination facility that could help meet future supply needs. About a dozen water districts throughout California are also considering desalination, but none have spent more money – at least $18 million – on two pilot projects, one previously in El Segundo and the other currently ongoing in King Harbor Marina.
A full-scale desalination plant in the South Bay would cost hundreds of millions of dollars with many experts skeptical that desalination technology can deliver water at a lower cost than imported supply.
How much money local residents continue to pay for a depleting resource could become much more important over the next decade. However, in the race for a seat on the West Basin water board, the campaigns are virtually non-existent.
Both Kwan and opponent Jake Townsend declined to be interviewed for this story. Kwan cited a previous article in this newspaper critical of her position on desalination along with an article eight years ago about her expense records. She instead forwarded calls to a spokesperson. Townsend said he just didn’t want to participate in either campaigning or publicity because of tactics he felt were intimidating by his opponent.
In August, Kwan filed court papers challenging Townsend’s designation in the voter pamphlet as a professor at USC. Townsend is an adjunct professor who teaches a masters course once a year called Nation Branding.
A judge later upheld Townsend’s job description, but that didn’t stop Kwan’s campaign spokesperson Rick Taylor from continuing to assert that Townsend is not a professor.
“I don’t think he’s qualified to be on the water board and I don’t think he’s a college professor,” Taylor said of Townsend.
The experience left Townsend shaken, so much so that he even tried to get his name removed from the ballot, but it was too late. Townsend says if elected he will serve, but he’s not actively campaigning.
That a water board member is running virtually unopposed for re-election is no surprise in the world of Southern California water districts. Few reporters cover water boards, but they have good cause to. About 10 years ago, two West Basin board members served time in prison for receiving bribes. In more recent years, board members to other Southern California water districts have drawn criticism for lavish expense accounts.
Conner Everts, a former water board member in Ojai, who’s critical of recent efforts to develop ocean desalination facilities, says there’s a lack of openness and democracy on water districts in general.
“It makes it harder for other people to get involved in the issues,” Everts said. “It gives you a few minutes of fame and you have a lot of power on the water board to make decisions. It’s just under the radar for most people.”
The West Basin water district controls a $166 million annual budget. It operates a multi-million dollar water recycling program in El Segundo, and it resells imported water to local cities.
Water board members receive $219 for every meeting they attend regarding water district business. They are allowed 10 such meetings per month with the potential to earn $2,300 in addition to health benefits and an expense account each month.
A review of the records shows that Kwan rarely attends fewer than 10 meetings per month. For that she’s not alone, but Kwan also has consistently reported some of the highest levels of expenses over the past 16 years she’s served on the board.
Kwan travels nearly monthly to a conference of some kind where she routinely takes associates out to dinner. When it comes to desalination, Kwan is a staunch supporter, which is evident from her professional affiliations and recent trips.
She’s shared time on the board of the American Membrane Technology Association and the New Water Supply Coalition – both pro-desalination trade groups – as well as CalDesal, a pro-desalination lobbying group funded by California water agencies. In 2010 Kwan traveled to Australia, paid for by the local chamber of commerce there, to tour a desalination facility.
“Because it’s so controversial we can’t even publicly say much about it,” Kwan told the Easy Reader last year in an article about the district’s desalination plans. “It’s no sure thing at all.”
None of the trips or meetings violated the water district’s policies, but Everts says it can cloud judgment.
“It’s a lot of work to be objective about these issues and not be overcome by the lobbyists and the water industry,” Everts said. “They give you a lot of information and you have to be objective. I don’t know if traveling around the world resolves those issues.”
Kwan has said she’s able to be objective.
“Sometimes they lobby pretty hard,” Kwan told the Easy Reader last November. “You have a few private firms that would like to see if a public entity would like to privatize. With all due respect you listen to them.”
Rich Nagel, district general manager, was unavailable for comment. Last year, Nagel told the Easy Reader, “From my vantage point it’s good that a board member is informed. I want them to be at conferences. It’s a good place to talk about policy.”
Kwan said at the time the board has been watching its expenses.
“We are very mindful right now, especially with the economy,” Kwan said. “I don’t think I’m any more or less in one direction. It’s just kind of normal.” ER