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Grand Jury probes water systems

July 23, 2014

Members of the 2013-14 Inyo County Grand Jury, seen here being sworn in by Judges Brian Lamb and Dean Stout in Independence. The panel’s Final Report is now out for public review, and can be found at public libraries. File photo

Following an inspection of the Inyo County Town Water Systems in Lone Pine, Independence and Laws, the Inyo County Grand Jury is recommending a price increase to keep the systems afloat.
During its inspection of the water systems, the Grand Jury found that the Laws Water System functions at an annual deficit of about $7,000. The Lone Pine and Independence systems are financially sound, with a net positive balance. However, all three systems “are old, with some infrastructure dating back to the 1920s, and, thus, have the potential for serious financial obligations as it relates to repairs, replacements and upgrades.”
The Grand Jury report states that a $2.6 million payment from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to Inyo County for the operation of the systems has been exhausted, and the $7,000 deficit for the Laws system is carried by the taxpayers.
The Grand Jury recommended that the three systems be operated as “for profit” water systems “to eliminate the burden to the county budget and taxpayers.”
To achieve that goal, the jury suggested that the Inyo County Board of Supervisors develop a plan for water rate adjustments.
The jury also recommended that Inyo County Public Works and the water system managers, Wilder/Barton Water Management Services, seek and apply for water grants that could be used for system upgrades. The Jury also requested that Wilder/Barton submit a five-year plan for upgrades and replacements based on an in-depth study of county water operations by the next fiscal year.
Until 1973, the LADWP owned and operated four local water systems, including Lone Pine, Independence, Big Pine and Laws, with the LADWP charging a flat rate to all customers, both in the Owens Valley and in L.A. Metered rates were instituted for Los Angeles residents in 1973-74. In 1976, metered rates for commercial customers were instituted in the Owens Valley, and in 1980 metered rates were instituted for all Owens Valley customers.
In 1982 the Big Pine Community Service District took control of the Big Pine Water system.
In 1984 the LADWP agreed to a rate change in Inyo, charging locals half of what customers were charged in L.A. “However, as a result of a law requiring all LADWP customer rates to be the same as L.A. customers, Inyo County began a lease agreement for Lone Pine, Independence and Laws so that those customers could receive lower rates,” the Grand Jury report states.
In 1991 Inyo County began a five-year lease agreement of the water systems and, at the end of that lease period, purchased each system for $1. The LADWP agreed to replace, upgrade and inspect all systems while the county set water rates.
The LADWP continued operating the systems until 1998. In 1999 Owenyo Services, a certified water management company, was contracted to operate the three systems along with the County Public Works Department.
In 2000, the LADWP completed its upgrades of the system, and provided the $2.6 million to the county for ongoing maintenance.
This year, Owenyo Services stepped down, and Wilder/Barton contracted with the county to maintain the water systems.
The Grand Jury Report was forwarded to the Inyo County Board of Supervisors, Public Works Department and Wilder/Barton Water Management Services for review and response.

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