The Department of Water and Power began 107 years ago, after Los Angeles bought back the civic water system from a group of privateers. Like its top man, William Mulholland, who began as a ditch-digger, the new DWP chief, Marcie Edwards, also started at the bottom, as a clerk. Now she's running the nation's largest city-owned water and power agency. Despite an epochal drought, and an aging water system, Edwards insists the DWP performs better than most utilities when it comes to policy and services. The agency, and its customers, she says, can do what's necessary to keep the city hydrated.
Has DWP changed its infrastructure plans after the Sunset Boulevard break?
People think age is the No. 1 criterion [for replacing water lines] and it isn't. It could be construction techniques, the materials, the corrosivity of the soil. We analyze that and we rate for condition. We had Sunset sonically evaluated within the last two years, and they said there was no problem.
If we suddenly had all the money in the world, we would still be choked down in how much we could do because we're a compact, highly developed city. I can't tear up all these major roadways at one time, so we have to feather in these projects where people can tolerate it. We did about 120,000 feet of water main repair last year and will do 150,000 this year.
We're going to start isolating sections of the system and intentionally pressurize them to see if we can create pinholes to indicate where there may be weaknesses, so we can do repairs in advance. A sewer pipe — you can run in a camera and look around. You can't do that with water pipe at 200 pounds of pressure.
Some people blamed the Sunset break on pressure created by the even-odd watering schedule.
Yes, let's blame conservation for pipe leaks! This was more a reflection of the corrosive soil and [outdated] construction.
Some of the 2009 water rate increase went to infrastructure.
It went for a number of water quality improvements. We're having to cover reservoirs; we're replacing a lot of major lines. We have a water supply plan: recycling projects, stormwater recapture projects, cleaning up local water. We've been lobbying heavily to ensure sufficient funding. There are low-interest state funds, there's bond money. And when you're talking about a basin that's contaminated, a share should be carried by the potentially responsible parties. The San Fernando Valley aquifer, if we're able to clean that up, is fairly good-sized, so it could help support Southern California. It's down to supplying only about 10% of our water [down from more than 50%].
We are going to ask very likely for [water rate] increases next year. Doing so this year under such drought conditions when people are paying so much more for imported [water] — the timing just wasn't right.
Who will pay for the damage from the Sunset leak? Is the DWP self-insured?
We have incident-specific insurance and I'm guesstimating that we will probably pay about $3 million [as a deductible], and insurance will cover the balance. Certainly $3 million isn't a drop in the bucket, but it's better than having made the decision to self-insure when you have that potential amount of damages out there. Everything's a trade-off.
Twenty million gallons lost — maybe 4% of the city's daily use — and a $3-million deductible. You're right that it's not a lot in the scheme of things, but appearances matter.
Customer perception is always critical. We do what's best in our technical analysis of the system. We need to ensure people are aware that's how we're working.
My challenge is, this utility is not skilled at storytelling. These guys, their function is to get the water back on, not to talk.
You have to maintain pressure in this vast system; if you drop under a certain pressure, it allows for potential contamination, and then you're giving boil-water orders to 100,000 people. Because it's 1921 technology, the [Sunset] valve wouldn't close against increasing pressure, so we had to work a series of other valves before we could get the last couple of "turns." People don't see us doing that.
Why not a jazzy campaign to make the public aware? For the drought, what about a public service announcement: Kim Kardashian promoting shorter showers?
I think things like that draw people's attention, but how much benefit would I get versus how much it would cost?
I think Kim Kardashian has been known to take off her clothes for nothing.
I could probably afford that!