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Environment & Science

LADWP on the hook for regulators' legal expenses related to Owens Lake

Using bulldozers, LADWP has been trying a new technique called
Using bulldozers, LADWP has been trying a new technique called "tillage" to tamp down dust at Owens Lake. Putting a bulldozer at an angle, operators plow in a straight line several feet deep through soil to turn up a layer of clay that can hold salty particles down.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

It seems the LA Department of Water and Power can’t catch a break these days. Late last month, the executive officer of the California Air Resources Board found against the utility in a dispute over dust controls at the dry Owens Lake. 

The decision was the culmination of a long, and apparently costly, legal battle between the DWP and the regulatory agency for Owens Lake, the Great Basin Air Pollution Control District. Now a Kern County Superior Court has held that DWP is liable for Great Basin’s expenses in defending its rules throughout that process.

Great Basin lauded the decision in a release:

“[The] decision is important to protect the environment and public health,” said Ted Schade, Great Basin’s Air Pollution Control Officer. “Hopefully it sends a message to leaders in the City of Los Angeles that its Department of Water and Power must comply with the law and its past agreements, that they must obey regulatory orders and, most importantly, that they must finish controlling the air pollution caused by their water diversions from the Eastern Sierra. We encourage Los Angeles’ leadership to begin serious discussions with Great Basin as to how it will meet its legal obligations and protect the air quality and public health of the residents of the Owens Valley.”

The decision in Kern County Superior Court puts DWP on the hook for $1 million – chump change compared with the $400 million DWP says it will cost to comply with the air board's ruling on dust controls at Owens Lake. 

DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo says his agency will pay the legal fees, and then contest them at trial. DWP continues to argue that the legal fees incurred by Great Basin regulators aren't reasonable: 

Great Basin has already stockpiled more than $2 million in LA ratepayer funds for services that were charged for, but never performed.  At trial, LADWP will challenge Great Basin's levies on Los Angeles water customers, pointing to Great Basin's hiring of outside attorneys at the rate of $750 an hour, Great Basin's collection of more than $85 million in fees from LADWP over the last 17 years, and Great Basin's use of LA water ratepayer money to fully fund its pension system and to pay for more than 90% of Great Basin's annual budget.

For a little context: a fully funded pension system for Great Basin would seem to cover 22 people at most, based on the district's website. Ramallo's larger point is that the DWP and Great Basin will have to go to trial over the reasonableness of legal fees. And that means that if there's one clear winner here, it's the lawyers.