Valley Perspective; Valley Secession Should Not Be Ruled Out by Water Concerns; Contrary to predictions that a split would result in higher costs, state law allows a detaching community to seek its share of resources.
SHIRLEY SVORNYLos Angeles TimesLos Angeles, Calif.: Jul 20, 1997. pg. 17

Like parents who call after their renegade teenager, "See how far you can get without the car keys," opponents of Valley secession threaten, "See how far you can get without Los Angeles' water!"

State Sen. Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles), one of the most vocal opponents of legislation to eliminate the City Council veto over secession, has voiced this threat. Polanco does not want the city to be divided into smaller jurisdictions. He hasn't publicly presented any particularly good reason. He urges dissatisfied residents to "build bridges" rather than secede. I have to admit that this must sound good to voters who have not thought about the problems associated with running an efficient, responsive city government for 3.6 million people.

Polanco has expressed the concern that San Fernando Valley residents are being misled by secessionists, that the leaders of the secessionist movement have not made public the fact that a community that secedes will lose access to L.A.'s cheap water. According to Polanco, buying water from the Metropolitan Water District would raise water costs in the Valley by 40%. More specifically, Bill Mabie, Polanco's chief of staff, told me that the secession-promoting organization Valley VOTE is misleading Valley residents by not pointing out the cost of secession.

Polanco, and everyone else attempting to play the water card, is wrong. State law is written to allow a detaching community to ask for its "fair" share of water rights. According to Peter Detwiler, an expert on the process of suburban secession, state law has been interpreted in recent cases in a way that would support the Valley's continued access to a portion of the water assets of Los Angeles. Detwiler, a consultant to the state Senate Committee on Housing and Land Use and author of "Suburban Secession: History & Context," has recently completed a review of California case law in this area. He referred me to California Government Code Section 56844, subdivision J. Here is what it says: "Any . . . reorganization may provide for the following terms and conditions . . . {including} the fixing and establishment of priorities of use, or right of use, of water. . . ." According to Detwiler, this means that the state-created, county-level agency charged with overseeing detachments and reorganizations, the Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), has the authority under state law to allocate water rights to a detaching jurisdiction. In response to this information, Mabie pointed out that water is never transferred easily in California. He's right. And Detwiler noted that opponents of secession could argue in court that the Legislature improperly gave the power to transfer water rights to LAFCO.

OK, so we know that any secession attempts will be difficult, contentious and costly. Detwiler likened a detachment to a divorce. In fact, state law allows a seceding community to pay alimony as part of "terms and conditions" to make the detachment meet state criteria that it be "fiscally neutral." But concerns over the cost and messiness of a divorce don't usually stop people from doing it if they have a good reason. Thinking about how to divide our water rights and other assets is reasonable. But despite claims to the contrary, allocating water rights creates no greater barrier to detachment than does the allocation of rights to other jointly owned assets.


Credit: Shirley Svorny is professor of economics at Cal State Northridge. She is an affiliated scholar at the Milken Institute for Job & Capital Formation