Our View: Water system staff shortage needs fixing

May 19, 2013 

Unable to match the salaries of private and some public utilities, California cannot retain enough skilled employees to maintain and operate its complex and vital water delivery system.

As The Sacramento Bee has reported, years of staffing shortages and turnover among workers occupying skilled trades and craft positions at state hydroelectric plants have compromised safety and efficiency.

In the short run, the solution will be to negotiate labor contracts authorizing higher salaries. In the long run, the structure of the state water system must be freed of constraints of state hiring and procurement rules.

The State Water Project — a vast, aging network of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, pumping stations and hydroelectric plants — supplies water and power to 25 million people. Its safe and efficient operation is vital to the state's economy and to the health and welfare of the public.

During the past two years, the water project has experienced a 10 percent to 15 percent vacancy rate for the most highly sought-after skilled workers. Approximately 90 of 670 positions within the project are unfilled.

State pay rates are 65 percent lower than industry standards and dangerously restrict the state's ability to recruit and retain the best talent available. As soon as the state trains new hydro plant workers at an average cost of $300,000 or $400,000, public and private utilities lure the recruits away with higher paying jobs.

While Gov. Jerry Brown seeks to hold down pay, a laudable goal, skimping on pay for highly skilled, hard-to-retain workers makes no sense in this specific case.

Pay and benefits for State Water Project workers do not come out of the state's general fund. Rather, water contractors, the beneficiaries of the system and their water and power customers pay those costs. The increased efficiency and safety that skilled workers provide more than cover the cost of their higher salaries.

For example, a devastating fire at the Thermalito Pumping and Generating Plant near Oroville at Thanksgiving was blamed in part on understaffing. The fire cost the state millions in lost power generation. Hundreds of millions more will be needed to rebuild.

Also, in 2011 and 2012 the state had to pay an extra $70 million for energy because it didn't have the personnel available to operate pumps when demand was low and energy was cheapest.

The State Water Project is not like any other state department. The enterprise faces fierce competition for employees and energy supplies.

State government constraints on hiring, contracting, purchasing spare parts and paying competitive wages reduce reliability and efficiency, and drive up costs.

In 2010, the Little Hoover Commission recommended moving the State Water Project into a separate, independent state-owned water authority to "create an organization designed specifically to operate the project." Brown and lawmakers should dust off that report and seriously consider its recommendations.

Clearly, the current system isn't working.

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