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Just How Clean Is DWP’s Water?

EASTSIDER-I know everyone likes to beat up on the Department of Water and Power, especially since recent accusations about the City Attorney and DWP “fixing” lawsuits over the billing debacle.

  But lost in the headlines is the fact that there are some things that the DWP, which is an engineering firm at its heart, does very well. 

Just to eliminate the suspense, the answer to the question is that in the latest 2018-19 Report, DWP’s water is in fact at least two times as clean as the stringent requirements of both the EPA and California’s regulations. All at a cost of less than a half cent per gallon. Here’s the who and the how: 

Background 

Far away from the political swamp of the Mayor, the Council, and the Mayor’s appointed DWP Board of Directors, the engineering guts of the DWP provides us with clean, reliable drinking water and 24/7 reliable power. 

Since they never get any credit, the person in charge of the Water System piece of DPW is Razmik Manoukian. (photo left) He has been working for the DWP for over 30 years, which translates into the kind of institutional knowledge that we need to maintain continuity in our long-term capital projects programs, such as capturing the erratic Sierra snowpack and rain for storage during the dry cycles. 

Remember, Southern California is a desert, and we simply don’t produce enough local water to exist.  So DWP is heavily invested in long-term projects such as recycling wastewater into pure water going back into the ground. To that end there is now a wastewater ozone demonstration project in the San Fernando Valley. 

Most of our water comes from the California Aqueduct (read Northern California) and the Colorado River Aqueduct via the Metropolitan Water District, and the Los Angeles Aqueduct (water delivered from the Eastern Sierra and owned by DWP). To make sure that all this water is clean when we open the tap at home, a lot of different tests are necessary. 

To make sure it is truly pristine, DWP conducted tests for over 200 constituents in our water supply and performed more than 120,000 tests throughout the system in 2018. That’s a lot. 

About Bottled Water

During a recent presentation, Raz made an interesting comparison between DWP water and the bottled water that you and I regularly buy in those nasty plastic bottles that are destroying the environment. (And let’s not talk about the price, of course, since bottled water costs a lot more than a half cent per gallon.) 

First, bottled water is “purer” than DWP water, but that’s because of how it is produced. Companies take plain old water from whatever source they want, whatever the contamination levels may be, and zap the water through a reverse osmosis system. The water on the other end is 100% pure because everything has been removed by the process. 

In fact, it is too pure, has absolutely no taste, and people won’t buy it. So, these same companies add chemicals back into the water so that people think it “tastes” like water. I kid you not. While the levels of chemical additives are less than the water treated by DWP, there are a couple of caveats. 

First, the shelf life of those plastic bottles is about two years, and you and I have absolutely no idea how old the bottled water is that we buy when it’s on sale at the grocery store. Over time, plastic can leach into the water. 

Second, the moment you open that bottle of water, it starts to degrade, because there is no protection from whatever is in the air and environment, and an open water bottle over time can become contaminated from whatever is out there, as well as from particulates that come from the plastic in the bottle. 

I won’t go into the significant environmental hazards posed by plastic bottles, since that has been well covered by the news media and we know they contribute significantly to the destruction of our environment. Face it, they are a guilty pleasure that we indulge in, but an expensive one both in terms of relative cost as well as environmental damage. 

About Our Schools 

For some of our schools in Southern California, there is still lead in the drinking water. Think about the Exide plant in Southeast LA and the Superfund which has still not eliminated all the risk. 

Turns out that since 2017, the DWP has offered a voluntary program to test for lead in our public and private schools. As of late 2018, DWP had received (and processed) requests from 24 schools, ensuring that all were in compliance. 

Effective in 2018, the legislature passed a bill requiring all public schools (private schools are excluded) to test for lead in the water. There are 105 schools within the DWP service area, and under the law all should have been tested by July 2019. 

If you have any questions about this program, you can contact the DWP directly at 213-367-3182. 

From the DWP Pipes to Our Taps

Here’s the Catch-22, and the reason for most of the complaints that the water “smells funny,” “looks funny,” or “tasted funny.” And yes, most of us have probably experienced this at some time or another. 

The sad fact is that the Department of Water and Power has absolutely no control over the pipes that go from the DWP mains in the ground into our homes, condos, or apartment buildings. None. 

We are at the mercy of whoever built the homes or structures, and when they built them. Capitalism being what it is, who knows what cost-cutting measures they engaged in at the time. And even if everything had been up to code, Los Angeles is an old City. A lot of us live in single-family homes or apartments that were built way back in the early 1900s, and god knows what is under the ground.  Over the course of a century, the building codes have changed a lot. 

Regarding the DWP’s own pipes, they are fine from a water quality standpoint. And since 2005, the Department has completed a cement lining program to extend their life and maintain excellent water quality.  

The real problem with the DWP delivery system is not water quality. IMHO, the problem is that all of the thousands and thousands of high-density units popping up all over LA are totally overloading our infrastructure as the City satisfies its lust for unaffordable affordable housing. 

The Takeaway 

For a change, I have a really cool positive takeaway. It turns out that the Department of Water and Power, at no cost to you, is available to help you out if you think there’s something funny going on when you turn on the tap. 

You can simply call the DWP, say something’s weird about your water, and they provide a free (read free) analysis. First, they will get someone to talk to you on the phone to see what the nature of the problem is and whether they can help you resolve the issue. 

If that doesn’t work, they will send someone out to visit you and do an analysis of your water. I had absolutely no clue about this service until the latest Neighborhood Council DWP Committee meeting. Hint: participate in your own Neighborhood Council and have it send a representative to the monthly DWP Committee meetings held the first Saturday of the month, 8:45 a.m. at the DWP Headquarters downtown. 

If you are curious about all this, there is a website covering most of the issues in this post, and you can find it here.  

(Tony Butka is an Eastside community activist, who has served on a neighborhood council, has a background in government and is a contributor to CityWatch.) Edited for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.