(L. A.) DWP Can Gloat Now, but Nature Will Have Last Laugh

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DWP Can Gloat Now, but Nature Will Have Last Laugh

By PATT MORRISON, Times Staff Writer

It's cool at my house. The AC purrs like an overfed cat. There's not so much as a glitch or a flicker from the lights. If I wanted to, I could, as Dick Nixon was fond of doing in the White House in August, crank it down to 68 degrees and light a fire in the fireplace and think of frosty autumn evenings as the sun seethes outside.

It's the steamiest, sizzlingest week on the calendar, and I am sitting pretty. My electricity, and my electric bill, come from a municipal monopoly called the Department of Water and Power. Southern California Edison pleads with its customers to please show some civic selflessness and turn off the AC and do a little patriotic sweating. Federal workers from Happy Camp to Chula Vista are under presidential order to let the thermostat and the temperature go higher. And the DWP, my DWP, is telling its customers, go ahead, crank it up, there's plenty more where that came from. How very funny. I'm laughing all the way to the mailbox, where I pay my bargain electric bill. The DWP, the soulless stickup artist that sucked the Owens Valley dry of water, the rapacious octopus wrapping its tentacles around riverbeds and snowpack, the head stumblebum in a city that can't do anything right--hero.

***** Smug, no, he won't tempt the gods by saying that, but there is no denying that S. David Freeman is one contented man. The mayor of San Diego has already called him once today; now her aide is phoning from a plane. They want advice, yes, but mostly they want to buy power and they want it now. Everyone is trying to be quite well-behaved about this, but damn, it's hot! It's a seller's market and the DWP--maybe only the DWP--has got energy to burn. In 1996, the lid came partway off California's energy market. Energy deregulation was to be a perpetual bargain-basement sale. Providers hired telemarketers to pitch us a lot of woo, which they could afford to do because registering as an official energy supplier cost all of $100. One company, Boston-Finney, later banished for running an illegal pyramid scheme, had as its president a boy of 19. Over time, prices and supplies have swung as wildly as a San Andreas seismograph, and deregulation now looks about as desirable as dotcom stocks. The DWP's own institutional sluggishness may have helped to save it. Stuck in a tar pit of debt and pork-barrel blubber when Freeman took over three years ago, it was a long way from ready to compete. And now, on one day this summer, the DWP made a reported $5 million selling its excess electricity. Who're you callin' fat? Freeman has spent enough time in Washington and Sacramento to know that saying "I told you so" is as good as painting a big fat target on your rump. "If you screw up, it's bad management," he said. " If you succeed, it's good luck." Lucky, too, is his timing. A DWP makeover plan years in the making--ramping up old power stations and selling off its share in a notoriously messy coal-burning plant in Nevada to pay down the debt--goes at last to the City Council for a vote next week. If the air conditioning is running, Freeman's luck may hold.

***** Don't get too comfortable. This could get ugly, "Lord of the Flies" ugly, and it probably will. The governor has asked the attorney general to investigate whether the wholesale market is being manipulated. Politicians--some of who thought this was a swell idea four years ago--are now born-again regulators calling for a "ratepayer rebellion." What you won't hear from any of them is the word "finite." Even magical, bountiful California will one day run out of the vital things--water, space, perhaps power. We live, in Carey McWilliams' artful phrase, on an island on the land, a place of artifice, of imported water and electricity. Moving the pieces around--water from the Sierras, electricity to San Diego--may dazzle us into thinking that we shall possess infinite plenty at sale prices forever and ever, like the bottomless cornucopias of myth. But switch off the AC and turn off the sprinklers. Step outside for a moment. Feel the sun's stare. Listen to the crackle of grass and brush underfoot, dry as low-fat potato chips and primed for fire season. Take it all as a hint that we really, really ought to know better than to believe in fairy tales, especially the ones we ourselves create.

Patt Morrison's column appears Fridays. Her e-mail address is patt.morrison@latimes.com.

-- PHO (owennos@bigfoot.com), August 04, 2000

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