News Column

California Short on Water Workers

May 16, 2013

Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau

Mojave Desert (file photo)
Mojave Desert (file photo)

California officials say the state cannot retain enough trained workers to efficiently run and maintain its complex water delivery system, a problem that has consequences for cities and farms statewide.

State pay for some key jobs, they say, has fallen so far behind the industry's standard that the Department of Water Resources serves as a farm system for private utilities and other government entities.

The problem costs taxpayers extra tens of millions of dollars each year to move water around the state, officials say, because facilities aren't managed efficiently.

"There has been a talent drain in some critical areas," said Daniel Curtin, who sits on the California Water Commission, a panel appointed by the governor. "There are key facilities that are unmanned. That tells you that we could use a few more players, but the salaries are lagging behind industry standards."

The department manages California's main water delivery system, including the State Water Project, and works with local water districts to manage the state's resources. It has about 3,400 budgeted positions this year, and expects to fill about 96 percent of them, according to state budget documents.

But the vacancy rate among the department's 670 hydroelectric plant trades and crafts positions -- workers who run and maintain the vast State Water Project -- has run between 10 percent and 15 percent for the last two years. Currently, according to department figures, 90 of those key positions aren't filled.

Sean Rossi, a senior hydroelectric plant operator whose job for the state includes monitoring water and power in the San Joaquin Valley region, said utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. and government entities such as the federal Bureau of Reclamation routinely go after newly trained state Water Resources employees.

"As soon as they finish their apprenticeship, they're offered jobs. Some utilities will call and recruit us at work," Rossi said. "I don't blame people for leaving."

One small but crucial work group, senior water and power dispatchers, exemplify the water department's recruiting and retention problem.

The state needs seven senior water dispatchers to oversee the 700-mile-long State Water Project. The complex system of reservoirs, aqueducts, pumping plants and power stations delivers water to 25 million Californians and to 1,200 acres of farmlands, a total area roughly the size of Rhode Island.

Water Resources has just five senior dispatchers, who earn $72,000 to $86,600 annually -- 65 percent below the industry's median for the job, according to a recent letter by California Water Commission Chairman Joseph Byrne.

Officials at Gov. Jerry Brown's Department of Water Resources declined to be interviewed for this story, but Byrne's April 23 letter to Natural Resources Secretary John Laird called the water project's staffing shortage a "crisis" that threatens to interrupt the system's reliability and is creating "numerous negative impacts" to the statewide water system. Among those he cited:

--High turnover. Apprentice dispatchers, for example, train three or four years to learn how to control system water flows, maintain pumping and power facilities and monitor water quality. The state spends a total $300,000 to $400,000 per apprentice.

"Currently, many, if not most of these individuals, leave (the department) shortly after completing the program for significantly higher-paying jobs at other utilities," Byrne wrote.

The department says the problem has been worsening for a decade.

--Less reliable water delivery. The State Water Project doesn't have enough dispatchers to run pumps at full throttle during the best times of the year to minimize effects on fragile ecosystems.

"This directly reduces (the project's) ability to deliver water," Byrne said in the letter.

--Higher operating costs. Between 2011 and 2012, Byrne said, the water project spent an extra $70 million for energy because it didn't have enough dispatchers to run pumps during non-peak hours when power is cheaper.

--Higher contracting costs. To backfill the staff shortage, the water department contracts out jobs that state employees could do, a practice restricted by state law.

"The last time we challenged one of those contracts, we lost," said Tim Neep, director of the operating engineers union that represents the state's skilled trades and craft workers.

The state's winning defense was, Neep said, "not enough bodies."

Byrne's letter also ties the water department's shortage of dispatchers to a Thanksgiving Day fire at the Thermalito Pumping/Generating Plant near Oroville.

The five-floor plant was destroyed, costing the state millions of dollars in lost power generation and "potentially hundreds of millions in clean-up costs and reconstruction," Byrne wrote.

The fire might not have been as devastating, he said, "had adequate personnel resources been available" to provide on-site staffing.

To help fill the jobs left vacant by those who leave, the department has reclassified the work and lowered qualifications in some instances.

The career path to senior water dispatcher used to take 14 years or more. But with some many lower-level dispatchers leaving for better-paying jobs, water project employees with as little as four years of experience assume those duties under a different job title.

The International Union of Operating Engineers, which represent skilled trades employees at Water Resources, has lobbied the governor's administration for higher pay. Its contract, like those of 18 other state employee bargaining units, expires in early July. All of those groups are negotiating new deals.

The union says the problem is serious enough to warrant a 45 percent pay raise. It's a touchy subject for Brown as he enters contract negotiations involving tens of thousands of employees throughout state government.

"They're worried about setting precedent for the other unions," said operating engineers lobbyist Tim Cremins. "And they're worried about public perception."

Byrne's letter didn't specifically call for wage increases at Water Resources, and Curtin also steered clear of taking a position on boosting pay for key water jobs.

But there's plenty of precedent. Several years ago, state prison nurses and engineers received substantial raises to make the state more competitive with the private sector and local governments.

Other professional groups such as state attorneys and computer programmers have argued for similar pay parity, but their wages remain well below the market standard.

Brown's budget proposals for the coming fiscal year don't hint at any big raises or a wave of new hires for the Department of Water Resources.

The administration has consistently signaled that Brown's agenda doesn't include a round of raises for state employees.

Julie Chapman, the administration's top labor relations official, suggested little will change when she was asked during a recent legislative committee hearing to forecast the outcome of labor talks.

"The governor has made statements," Chapman said, "that he's not going to spend money he doesn't have."


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