Maria Gutzeit
Board President, Newhall County Water District

Interview by Leon Worden
Signal Multimedia Editor

Sunday, January 2, 2005
(Television interview conducted December 20, 2004)

Maria Gutzeit     "Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Comcast, and hosted by Signal Multimedia Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
    This week's newsmaker is Maria Gutzeit, newly appointed president of the Newhall County Water Board. The interview was conducted Dec. 20. Questions are paraphrased and some answers may be abbreviated for length.

Signal: You were elected in November 2003 as part of a three-member environmental majority whose big goal was to report water supplies accurately, as if they hadn't been previously. Now it's a year later. You've succeeded Lynne Plambeck as board president, and it seems there is a different three-member majority. What changed?

Gutzeit: Well, first of all, I think the board really should be five people, and I would hope that everyone on there is voting independently on every issue. What has changed — the change has been that we got a new report done from an outside firm that a different majority than the original three supported. So that kind of changed.

Signal: Has the so-called "Stetson Report" by Stetson Engineers Inc. changed your views about the adequacy of our water supply?

Gutzeit: To elaborate on what the report did that was different than what we were looking at beginning in January: The difference in the report is primarily in the state water project water — the water coming down the aqueduct — and the pumping from the river.
    The pumping from the river — the technical people who did the report looked at well logs, hydrogeology, rainfall patterns, etc., and they felt, based on that that, the river could be pumped a bit more than previous reports had assumed, and then more than we had assumed back in January.
    I asked him specifically if that increase pumping is what's causing the wells to be low on the east side (of the valley), and he felt that was mostly due to rainfall patterns, not due to the pumping in the valley. So that is a different number; that gives us a little more water.
    Another thing, on the state water, they used state numbers for a "normal year" — that water is an amount we can get about 65 percent of the time. I again asked if that's an issue on reliability — you know, 65 percent of the time certainly isn't all of the time — but what the technical people presented to us was, because we have an integrated system of water with groundwater, water banking, some recycling of water — it's pretty minimal right now — that increases our overall reliability. Those are the two things that changed.

Signal: A year ago, you felt too much water was being pumped out of the Santa Clara River. But now, with Stetson's new analysis of the same data you were using then, you no longer believe too much water is being pumped? Is that correct?

Gutzeit: Yes. And I guess what has changed is that this is an independent person whom we hired to look at the numbers.
    There has been a lot of controversy in this valley over who is supporting whom, and who is slanting the numbers their way or not. This is a consultant we hired to take a hard look at the numbers, and he said that this higher level pumping is OK.
    That's not to say that we shouldn't do more studies. I think there probably should be some specific studies on the river, because we have private well owners whose wells are going down. We have Newhall County Water District wells that are greatly down in the Pinetree area, and we probably need a better handle on why that is and what we can do to not have them drop so much in a drought situation, if anything.

Signal: Why do you think the water levels are dropping on the east side of the valley?

Gutzeit: Again, the consultant said it's basically that we're in a net deficit, over an extended period of time, for rainfall.
    We've had some wet years and some dry years, but basically the dry years have outnumbered the wet years recently, so we're at a net negative cumulative rainfall.
    Also, the flow pattern on the river is that it flows from east to west in a downhill manner. So when things are going to go down, they're going to go down first on the east side. Of course, the river is recharged by rainfall, so the aquifer, when it doesn't rain, will go down.

Signal: Do you think the cycle will balance itself out in the next few years and the water table will rise again?

Gutzeit: Hopefully. I mean, those wells were designed on that side of town to pump efficiently, and right now they're not. Hopefully they were engineered to pump at the normal level at which we are not at right now.

Signal: We get about half of our water from the State Water Project. You had questioned its reliability, and there was some dispute about what it meant to be able to rely on 80 percent of the water 50 percent of the time, or something like that.

Gutzeit: Our water from the State Water Project is coming from the Sacramento Delta through an aqueduct. That aqueduct serves many water contractors throughout the state (such as Castaic Lake Water Agency). The water depends on the snowpack in northern California. The water that is in the system in any given year is based on the rainfall, and the snowpack is divvied up evenly by all the contractors — you get a percentage of your allocation.
    This reliability factor, the state has done some analysis of what percentage of the time you're going to get your full amount, and that's essentially — never do you get your full contractual amount. They looked at ... the worst-case (scenario) and did basically a little chart, and you can match up — if you're looking at 50 percent of the time, you should get X amount; 60 percent of the time you should get X amount.
    Really, what it comes down to is, how risk-free do you want to be? If you go for 100 percent guaranteed, you're probably going to get something in the order of 10 percent of the water. But certainly, 90 percent of the time you're going to get more than that. So, we don't want to plan to that.
    I think the issue is, whatever reliability we're playing with or presenting, everybody needs to be aware that that's not 100 percent of the time. It's not practical to go with "100 percent of the time." But it's a matter of where we're drawing the line, and what are we comfortable with.

Photo Illustration
[Click for Photo Illustration by
Reneh Agha and Bryan Kneiding
    Again, we started out feeling that we had to be very conservative; we were going for a number of about 80-percent-of-the-time reliability. But we didn't take into account the fact that we have interties for areas that are on state water.
    For instance, Tesoro del Valle is usually at 100 percent on state water. And we thought, "Oh my gosh, what if something happens? They're going to have no water." And as we got more into it, we understood that there are interties in the system; that there are things that we could do very quickly to serve those areas if we lose the State Water Project water. And we could (lose it), from an earthquake or a severe drought. Any number of things could happen. But it appears that we have more backup plans than we thought, and we certainly need more backup plans, too.

Signal: The earlier three-member majority — you, Plambeck and Joan Dunn — developed policies, based on your earlier interpretation of the data, that led developers to believe they weren't going to get water. How would you assess the way you and the board interpreted the data and translated into policy this past year?

Gutzeit: First of all, I do want to clarify that no one was ever denied service. We had the policy of — certainly all the schools would get water; no one applied to us who did not get water, even when we were operating under our initial plans.
    I think the water district certainly has the right to look at existing data and interpret it. As you said earlier, it was just a matter of — we were being more conservative than the Stetson Report, this later report that we adopted, is. But I think that was completely within our right, and I think that the main issue that we continue to do is point out the risks and the issues of future water acquisition so that that everyone is aware.
    It's not that we found more water now; it's just that we are using different reliability numbers more consistent with what the other water agencies were doing. But it's not like we, all of a sudden, found some water that we had misplaced. It's the same numbers.

Signal: The William S. Hart Union High School District has criticized the water district for delaying a new high school in the NorthLake community in Castaic. You've said you will provide water to schools, but if you won't serve the housing development, there's no school. Do you feel you've properly balanced your concerns about the water supply with other needs?

Gutzeit: With the NorthLake case specifically, NorthLake never applied to us for water.
    If they chose not to apply — I can't speculate why that was. But it's not as if they applied and were turned down and had to wait.

Signal: Do you think you've been improperly blamed?

Gutzeit: On the NorthLake one, yes. And I will say that I understand the funding situation with the schools and with the developments, but at a certain point, we need to have the infrastucture.
    If we need a school, we need a school. But if we don't need 4,000 houses or we don't have adequate roads or whatever — I do think they should be considered independently. I don't like the idea of being held hostage to get a free school that we will have to bend the rules on the other things.
    On this case, now, we certainly think we have enough water. The project will have to go through all the planning process with the county. And NorthLake did get their initial water assessment that said there's adequate water. They just got that (two weeks ago). So the development can go ahead.
    But I think the best situation for everybody is if everyone just does their own job. The water districts look at: Is there enough water? The planners look at: Are the roads adequate? Is the air quality going to be positively or negatively affected by this project? We need to make sure we all stick to our own agendas.

Signal: You're fairly new to the political scene. You're considered an environmental activist, but with your acceptance of the Stetson Report, you've raised some eyebrows. Are the concerns about groundwater contamination and the state water supply still valid, or are they taking a back seat now?

Gutzeit: Again, it goes with what I just said. The water district is there to determine if we have enough water for these projects, suggest ways to get the water if there's not, and it stops there.
    I'm personally very concerned with the traffic, the air pollution — open space is another one. But that's not my job on the water board. If I have a spare night I'll go to (the) City Council and speak about those issues on a project, or write a letter to L.A. County (Regional) Planning. But I don't think that's the water board's job — as much as I will say I don't think it's (for) city people or school districts to tell (us) how much water there is. Because that's not their job.
    If everybody does their job, hopefully things will go a little further. One thing you mentioned, the perchlorate (contamination), that is still subtracted from the water availability totals under our new scenario. That is one thing we did —

Signal: So you're still not counting polluted water in the availability totals?

Gutzeit: No, we're not. That was one of the first things we did back in January, and it is still not being counted until the treatment is on line.

Signal: And now, a year after you adopted a go-slow approach to water, the Los Angeles County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) has decided the water district should be dissolved and its customers absorbed into the Castaic Lake Water Agency. How are you reacting to that?

Gutzeit: First of all, to clarify, LAFCO, the agency, commissioned a report by an outside consultant, Dudek, to study the service area of the water districts. That report identified some concerns and said that further study was needed. That's what the consultant said.
    LAFCO staff took that report and recommended dissolution of Newhall County Water District. The LAFCO board did not take that action and did not accept that recommendation —

Signal: The LAFCO board hasn't yet discussed it —

Gutzeit: They had a meeting early December, their full board did have a meeting, and it was on the agenda, and that item has now been deferred until the end of January.
    And the water districts, all the water districts in the valley including Castaic Lake and Santa Clarita Water — the potential takeover group — they all supported a more comprehensive, detailed study of what would be the most efficient way to run the water districts.
    I think the idea of merging Newhall County with another water district was kind of an arbitrary decision that might not serve the customers the best. It may not technically make sense. If there are going to be mergers of our district or another district up here, it has to be examined in detail as to (whether it) technically makes sense, if it financially makes sense, and do it that way.

Signal: Newhall County and Castaic Lake Water Agency were like fire and ice for much of the year; do you feel you've been bullied by LAFCO into cooperating with them?

Gutzeit: No. No, I don't. I assume you're maybe talking about the Urban Water Management Plan and some other things that we have recently agreed to go in on. On that issue, I have always said that I believe in regional planning. I mean, it makes sense. We all share the same water supply.
    I did not initially support that, because I had heard, going into (2004), that Castaic was not to be trusted. There's these different issues — they were going to insist on counting the polluted water, and we certainly didn't want to do that. We didn't want to be in a position of having to sign a report that counted the polluted water as available.
    However, now I've gotten to know some of the directors of Castaic, spoke to them of their concerns. Of course, there was the appeals court settlement, (and) now everyone is clear they can't count the polluted water. They have also spoken favorably about some of the findings in the Stetson Report, and I think we're kind of finding more common ground. And it makes sense, if at all possible, to have one common plan for managing our water.

Signal: Members of the environmental community have long accused the Castaic Lake Water Agency of being in the pocket of developers and bending over backward to accomodate growth. Did you feel that way a year ago when you joined the NCWD board, and if so, do you still feel that way today?

Gutzeit: I did feel that way a year ago. Today, I still remain very concerned, specifically about the campaign funding, the huge amount of money from outside interests that go into the local water district elections, the Castaic election, other local elections. To anybody who looks at (who) the donors (are) for those campaigns, it is a little off-putting. But campaigning is expensive...
    The reason I don't feel that way anymore is because I've talked individually to some of them, and our independent consultant has supported and brought more detail to some of the things that I was concerned about before.
    So, you know, I think there's probably not the information flow from Castaic to us, either. That might be built on some of the distrust, that might have been old animosity, or whatever. But we're hoping to break that down and hopefully work together well. If it doesn't go well, we can still go out on our own and do our own report. Or do supplemental information.
    For example, on the Urban Water Management Plan, some of my concerns are emergency planning — what to do if the aqueduct (fails). Do we have a plan to take care of everybody right away if half our water supply goes away? I thought that was deficient in the old Urban Water Management Plan. Now we're going to have a seat at the table and ask them about beefing that up a little bit. If they don't, if the end product doesn't come out that way, we can certainly still do our own emergency plan in our district, but it would be better if, valleywide, we did one.

Signal: The Stetson Report re-analyzed the same data you were looking at a year ago when you thought there wasn't enough water. Who did the original analysis a year ago?

Gutzeit: That was done internally, within — some of the staff, some of the directors. The argument was that we were working from existing reports, and there are many, many water districts across the country and across the state that do not hire an expert to interpret a report written by an expert.
    Because things we're heating up, because we appeared to possibly have legal issues, we wanted to have an expert double-check us. That's why we decided to bring in Stetson, later, to see if we were right or if we were wrong or how an outside person would do the numbers differently.

Signal: What is your background?

Gutzeit: My degree is in chemical engineering, but what I have done since graduating is work with industry, helping them interpret environmental regulations and come up with plans to comply with that. air emissions reporting, hazardous waste training, waste characterization, filing reports to the EPA, that type of thing.

Signal: What attracted you to this particular water board?

Gutzeit: I wanted to do something for the community that I could use my background in. I mean, there are a lot of things that I'm interested in, but this one seemed like kind of a fit for somebody with a technical background. It has helped a lot, when we're getting bids for projects or we're talking about how to drill a well or whatever. Having some background in that has been helpful. So I thought it was a good fit.

Signal: Newhall County just raised water rates — in some cases, reportedly up to 30 to 40 percent higher than the amout Santa Clarita Water charges its customers. Why was this rate increase needed?

Gutzeit: Well, first of all, there was Proposition 1A that was on the ballot in the fall. That, off the top, took out $362,000 a year of our property tax revenue. We lost 100 percent of our property tax under that plan. So the district certainly needs the money.
    The district is nonprofit (agency), but even before that money was taken, we had looked at the budget projections: What do we need to keep the tanks in good condition, to keep them stable and upgraded for earthquakes, to keep the pipes from leaking? And just our revenue projections indicated that we needed a rate increase.
    The tiered rates is a system that's used widespread in California. It's suggested as a best-management practice for conservation by the state under an agreement that we signed for conservation. Our district is a signer to this agreement, so we pretty much have to do some kind of conservation rate.
    The impact will really not be that great. I was just looking at some numbers — 75 percent of our customers in the summer will see no rate increase, even with no conservation. In the winter, close to 50 percent of our customers will see absolutely no rate increase, with no conservation. The average customer is going to see a change of less than $1 on their bill.
    The large rate changes that people have been talking about, that's happening with some people who have misclassified meters. They're operating businesses on their properties; they have (multiple) units, four or five homes on one parcel — things that should be more properly classified as a business, and if they are reclassified, which we are in the process of doing, then the rate increase will not nearly be as much. The businesses are going to be on a flat rate. So for your average homeowner, it will be very minor.

Signal: Are we going to see the fireworks from the Newhall County Water Board that we saw in 2004?

Gutzeit: No, I sure hope not. I think, like I said, we're trying to work with other agencies, extend the olive branch, and we hope that we're willing to do the same and look at our water supply jointly and have some joint conservation, do some good things jointly.
    I think if everybody's at the table, then it will be better next year.

    See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Comcast and Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.

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