Interview: S. David Freeman

Posted on | September 15, 2009 | 8 Comments

IN APRIL 2009, a man of big hats, big talk and big reputation, S. David Freeman, was appointed Deputy Mayor of the City of Los Angeles for Energy and Environment. The job vaulted the Tennessean and former General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power back into the forefront of water issues just as the State Legislature tried to pass a massive block of water bills. Last week, that legislation failed, and Freeman thinks that’s just as well for Los Angeles.

The interview took place on the afternoon of September 15th, 2009. For the sake of brevity and clarity, the questions and answers have been edited.

Q: What do you think about the failure of the water bills in Sacramento last Friday?

Stetson whiteA: I think everyone was cool with the policy bills but the [$12bn] bond came up and frankly we didn’t have enough time to be assured that the distribution would serve LA’s interests well. Frankly, I think it was wise to put it off and take the time to fully understand what we were doing. It’s good that they were general obligation bonds, but we still have to pay them.

[On the Governor’s insistence that he would only sign water bills that called for new dams]

I don’t know that we need to build dams in this state. There are good dams and bad dams and most of the good dams were built a long time ago. I think the answer to our water problems lies in efficiency and reusue. Is there a proportional amount in the bonds to do advanced treatment and Hyperion [waste water sewage plant] and build purple pipe? That’s our question.

Q: The Mayor has said that Los Angeles has been at the front of conservation since the early 1990s, but cities such as Long Beach have done better. What does Los Angeles have to do to really lead in conservation?

Stetson brownA: I refuse to acquiesce to the premise of your question … this city for 20 years, part of it on my watch, has conserved and conserved and our water consumption has stayed level as our population has grown. Who the hell’s the leader if not LA? It seems to me that we gave away more low flow toilets than anyone in the world.

[On the June lawn watering ordinances]

We saved a whole bunch of water for three months in a row. I can’t claim personal credit for it. The mayor deserves tremendous credit. The city council as well. They put in place a series of measures that reduced water use some 20% three months in a row.

Q: What about pricing as a conservation measure?

Stetson blackA: As far as the customer is concerned, when they turn on the faucet, they want water. They want it to be clean and they want the rates to be reasonable. How we go about achieving the results become of diminished interest. With our story on water, we kept the water supply ample and reasonable in price. We could probably get more for it. There’s a school of thought that thinks the rates should be higher but we’re not gougers. There’s a success story here.

Q: What are LA’s options in reducing our demands on the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta?

Stetson whiteA: Our option is to reuse the damn water we’re already getting. Water is fundamentally different from electricity. When you use a kilowatt hour, it’s gone but you can use and reuse water forever. All water has been in the toilet. It’s recycled forever. We’re drinking Shakespeare’s water. We can accelerate our efficiency efforts.

[On other potential savings]

Effort to acquire water that’s being wasted on the farms is something I’m talking to the Department about initiating. One of the missing things in the whole discussion of water is the harsh fact that 70% of the water is still going on the farms. It’s not being metered. We can solve the water crisis if we just put drip irrigation on farms and eliminate some of the most wasteful crops.

Q? Do you believe that we are in a drought, or facing a reality check where we have to adopt water conservation appropriate for a dry climate city?

Stetson brownA: I think we’re in a permanent shortage environment and it’s a mistake to think that what we have this year is something special. There’s so much uncertainty about the future with climate change. … The word drought is kind of like the word accident. It relieves you of examining the root cause and dealing with it.

Q: Cities across Southern California vary between mandatory and voluntary cutbacks. Is there any way to bring the cities together and aim for one over-arching regional ordinance?

Stetson blackA: A lot of people like to think that that agency is the Met [Metropolitan Water District of Southern California]. A new urban water voice is needed in the equation. Mayor Villaraigosa has already indicated to me he intends to organize that collective voice. It’s having a voice in Sacramento that reflects the use in this state. Those facts are not brought home to tell. You look at the bills and the bond measures and all and how much of it is going to require more efficient use on the farms. Willie Sutton used to rob the banks. You know why? That’s where the money used to be. If we really want to conserve water, we have to look at where it’s going and where it’s being wasted.

Q: The city can and does enforce regulations quite efficiently when it chooses. Take how effectively it issues parking tickets on street cleaning days. Why not use the same patrols to cite people breaking water ordinances? A car in the wrong place won’t deplete a crucial natural resource. Gratuitous lawn watering does.

Stetson whiteA: The facts are that we are getting favorable results. There are people who are cheating. The records show there are an awful lot of people who are complying. The glass is either 90% full or 10% empty. This is not a police state. If you look at the percentage of people who pay all the income tax correctly, we’re probably doing better. I don’t think long term the answer lies in tougher enforcement. The answer lies in reusing our water and xeriscaping … I think there’s going to be a big shift from green lawns to xeriscaping … I just want the government to set a target for the farms.

Q: What is happening in Owens Valley with dust control?

Stetson brownA: I think we’re doing well. I’m very proud of what they’ve done. The job’s not quite finished. … The level of dust is down to 10% of what it needs to be to meet standards. I would say this is a great untold success story.

Q: What is happening with the lawsuit against CH2M Hill [a DWP contractor in dust suppression]?

Stetson blackA: I don’t know. It’s part of Nick Patsaouras legacy, I think.

Q: Finally, what is happening with the Cadiz [application to use its Mojave desert property for a Department of Water & Power groundwater storage project]?

Stetson whiteA. The department informs me that that’s not a bid they’re considering.


8 Responses to “Interview: S. David Freeman”

  1. David Zetland
    September 15th, 2009 @ 7:55 pm

    Pretty sad response on prices (“we’re not gouging”). He should have been thinking of penalizing water wasters, not widows and orphans.

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    September 16th, 2009 @ 8:52 am

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  3. Jen
    September 16th, 2009 @ 11:40 am

    I disagree that this city doesn’t need “water police.” On my walk to/from my bus stop (along Sunset) I routinely see people washing their driveways and sidewalks with water. I’ve tried to explain the new water rules but mostly just get blank stares in return.

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  5. Mike
    September 16th, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

    I found this video on another blog
    I think the last line says it all. I live in Melbourne, Australia. We’ve been in drought since 1997. We’re a first world country and our government has been so slow to act that our water storages are getting perilously low. A lot of households now harvest their own water in varying degrees. What we do is “solve our on water problems” by harvesting our own rainwater. Governments are the same everywhere around the world, slow to act and then under deliver.

  6. EmilyGreen
    September 16th, 2009 @ 11:14 pm

    Mike, thank you so much. You make an excellent point and the video is lovely and so very apt.

  7. Nahai out at LADWP | Chance of Rain
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    […] release from the Mayor’s office. Stepping up as temporary replacement with be deputy mayor S. David Freeman. Category: LADWPTags: chance of rain > David Nahai > Emily Green > S. David […]

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    […] Rather, Villaraigosa gave it only tepid support, while instead playing out a stalking game to oust Department of Water and Power General Manager David Nahai and replace him with his deputy mayor S. David Freeman. […]

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