Candidates for a seat on the scandal-rocked Water Replenishment District campaign on conservation and transparency

By Gary Walker

Jim Kennedy, Merrill Kruger, Robert Katherman

Jim Kennedy, Merrill Kruger, Robert Katherman

The politics of water have perhaps never been as polarized since the California Water Wars of the early 20th century, when agricultural interests competed with urban leaders for control of the vital natural resource.

A historic drought, unprecedented statewide water conservation mandates and allegations of public corruption among water management boards have all been making headlines and could focus more voter attention on the Water Replenishment District of Southern California.

The somewhat obscure agency manages local and imported groundwater supplies for more than four million residents in the southern region of Los Angeles County, including Playa del Rey and Westchester in Division Two.

That race has three contenders seeking a four-year seat on the board: incumbent director Robert Katherman; Jim Kennedy, a former deputy to the late City Councilman Bill Rosendahl; and Merrill Kruger,
a San Pedro landscape contractor.

The agency’s — and Katherman’s — reputation took a hit in August 2014 when he and his wife Marilyn were indicted and charged with embezzlement of public funds. A jury acquitted the Kathermans of all charges in March of this year.

Prosecutors had accused the Kathermans of conspiring with former West Basin Municipal District Director Ronald Smith to syphon $20,000 from the water district to a Torrance nonprofit of which Robert Katherman was president. That nonprofit accepted donations from West Basin and allegedly paid for rent and boat repairs for Smith, as well as dance and tennis lessons for his children.

Although jurors found the Kathermans not guilty, Smith pleaded guilty to the public corruption charges; Smith also told a judge that Katherman was the true mastermind of the swindle, casting himself as the fall guy.

Loyola Marymount University professor Joseph Reichenberger says water district races, while still not followed by the majority of voters, have become far more politicized over the past decade.

“When water boards do their job they often operate in the background. Political parties look at water boards as a stepping stone to higher office,” said Reichenberger, a former member of the San Gabriel Valley Water District. “The better-run districts tend to have a lot more stability among their members. Anything that comes up in terms of a possible conflict of interest can be magnified at this level.”

Created by the state in 1959, the replenishment district’s 420-square-mile service area uses about 250,000 acre-feet of groundwater per year, which equates to nearly 40% of the total demand for water regionally.

Directors receive $265 per meeting, plus expenses and benefits can add up to tens of thousands of dollars. Kather-man received $41,000 in per diem payments in 2015, reported the Daily Breeze.

Katherman and Kennedy have exchanged pointed barbs during the campaign and accused each other of dishonest if not outright unethical behavior.

Kennedy, a member of the nonprofit Friends of the Ballona Wetlands, noted that Katherman had not faced a challenger for his position director’s seat since 2008.

“The rot is at the head the agency, and the lack of daylight seems to have made the incumbent insular,” Kennedy said. “There is a need to clean the board without the distraction of personal misbehavior.”

Katherman, a civil engineer, argues that he has the most experience with water management and accused Kennedy of playing politics. Katherman said he has put the embezzlement trial behind him and is ready to serve his final term on
the board.

“People who I’ve met and people who I know tell me they knew that the charges were a bunch of bull,” Katherman said. “We were found innocent: What else does he want?”

Katherman challenged Kennedy’s ballot designation as a water policy advisor in court but a judge ruled in Kennedy’s favor.

Kruger has largely tried to stay out of the fray. She says the quixotic presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary inspired her to run for public office.

“I grew up in Los Angeles and was often discouraged from following politics because of its element of corruption. I felt like politics was something that I could never be a part of,” she said. “I think that [Sanders] represented a lot of ideals that a lot of people agree with and I had never heard [from a candidate] before.”

Kruger said her background as an environmentalist and landscape contractor will bring new ideas to the agency — which she, like Kennedy, believes has been damaged by scandal.

“It’s really difficult to step into an office that is tainted, because there’s a lot to clean up,” she said.

Katherman said he wants to keep water rates low, build an advanced water purification plant in Carson and focus on how global warming is impacting water resources.

“We are in reasonable shape because we’ve been using a lot of recycled water, but we still need to make groundwater basins completely free from the need to purchase imported water,” he said.

Kruger said that on the campaign trail she frequently hears interest in desalination, a chemical process that removes contaminants from saltwater to make it useful for irrigation or even potable.

“It’s a great temporary fix, but we need to come up with alternate solutions,” Kruger said, citing an emphasis on stormwater retention and reuse.

Kennedy promises to explore new methods of improving stormwater capture and to continue promoting recycled water.

“These are among the less expensive alternatives to desalination,” he said.

Incorporating more graywater recycling on properties is another form of conservation that the agency should explore, Kruger said.

“Washing machines are a popular and simple retrofit. However, selective use of sink water, for instance, when washing vegetables and rinsing dishes that don’t have meat or dairy is also an excellent source of reclaimed water for edible and drought tolerant gardens,” she said.

All three candidates agree that the agency’s meetings, which are not currently televised, should be broadcast as a gesture toward openness and transparency.

Katherman thinks voters should reelect him “because I’ve done a good job,” he said. “Our board and staff have done an outstanding job of weaning ourselves off imported water.”