Uprising in the Water Colonies | News | Los Angeles | Los Angeles News and Events | LA Weekly

Uprising in the Water Colonies 

DWP board goes in search of peace in Owens Valley

Wednesday, May 3 2006

RON DEATON, THE DEPARTMENT OF WATER AND POWER’S embattled general manager, was not up to talking about the doomed Owens Lake Dust Mitigation Project, or any other factor in L.A.’s looming water-rate hikes. So he retreated to the back of a DWP van, where two of Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s deputies were waiting — also anxious to leave a public meeting that was long on rhetoric but short on details.

Deaton and the mayor’s energy and environment deputies, Nancy Sutley and Kecia Washington, had come to Bishop, 300 miles north of L.A., along with the DWP Board of Commissioners, appointed by Villaraigosa. They came to see if they could quell suspicion and acrimony in the city’s water colonies in Mono and Inyo counties; the result of a century’s worth of taking, double talk and hardball stall tactics.

The journey began last Wednesday with a cuddly meet-and-greet at the Grand Sierra Lodge in Mammoth Lakes, in Mono County, where scars from battles with the DWP seem to have healed. It had started out on a positive note. After a State of the City address in which the mayor avoided mentioning the DWP, here were his top three commissioners, Mary Nichols, David Nahai and Nick Patsaouras, and two of his deputies hobnobbing with ranchers, Native Americans, environmentalists and local officials who are inclined to distrust anything from the mouth of an L.A. official. The trip was meant to address “Eastern Sierra Commitments and Issues.” Dubbed by skeptical locals as the “Peace in the Valley Tour,” it had the makings of a schmooze fest.

Nichols and Nahai had been making speeches about a new era of cooperation; they expressed shock at how broken the relationships were. Sensing a “historic” opportunity, locals had asked gingerly for more water, more environmental mitigation, more freedom to grow their own towns. Patsaouras, after first resisting the journey, had brought along his special brand of no-nonsense talk. His Greek accent had been a big hit. But now the group was down in Inyo County, where the wounds are raw and the memories long. Most here know that Deaton pulls the levers of power at the nation’s largest public utility.

Yet not only was Deaton loath to respond to questions about what the DWP plans to do about the bloated and costly dust-removal project — he was literally running away from a reporter and refusing to talk. The project, rooted in an era of cronyism and pay-to-play at City Hall, has been targeted for a forensic audit and put back out to bid. Scientists, engineers, environmentalists, regulators and residents around the 100-square-mile dry lake still can’t agree on whether it is controlling the dust. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 18 has filed a lawsuit over the DWP’s decision to break the contract into four pieces. Deaton wasn’t ready to hear more bad news.

Huddled in the back of a DWP van, however, surrounded by the mayor’s deputies, he had nowhere to hide from allegations of an unhealthy situation on the ground — one that mirrors the high-end intrigue attached to the city’s largest public-works contract since the second aqueduct was built in the 1970s: that DWP employees have been using department funds to pay for repairs for their trucks, gravel for their driveways, lumber for their homes and swamp coolers for their mistresses’ trailers. The L.A. Weekly received a tip regarding these allegations weeks ago.

On Thursday, DWP manager Dan Raftevold, in the Bishop office, had said, “I can’t comment on that.” DWP supervisor Chris Plakos replied, “Nobody comments on that stuff, you’ll have to talk to Deaton.” Gene Coufal, who runs the Bishop office of the DWP, did not seem surprised. He shrugged and offered what people up here call the “upside-down smile” and said, “You’ll have to talk to Barbara Garrett,” referring to Deaton’s right-hand woman on lake issues. Garrett had passed the buck back to Deaton.

So here came the question through an open side door to the van: “Mr. Deaton, what is the DWP doing in response to allegations of employee theft on the lake?” A pause. Deputy mayors Sutley and Washington looked startled by such an unseemly proposition. Then the grudging reply: “We’re investigating,” Deaton muttered, as the door slammed and the van drove off.

Maybe he was telling it like it is. The Weekly has learned that Deaton is beefing up an investigative unit at the DWP for just such occasions. Sources at the DWP say he has modeled the unit after an investigative unit at City Hall. Former law enforcers Bill Jones and Bill Garcia, investigators at the DWP, will head the unit and report to Assistant General Manager Hal Lindsey, sources at the DWP say. Jones and Garcia are on the case of alleged theft on the lake.

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