LA Department of Water and Power chief resigns

David Nahai resigned as head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to serve as a senior advisor to former President Clinton's Climate Initiative.
David Nahai resigned as head of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to serve as a senior advisor to former President Clinton's Climate Initiative.

The head of the Department of Water and Power, David Nahai, will step down from the general manager position he's held for two years.

Nahai will take a position as senior advisor to the Clinton Climate Initiative. The City of Los Angeles announced earlier this year a partnership with that initiative to finance energy efficient street lights around LA.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who brought Nahai to the DWP, thanked him for his service. "He led the team responsible for increasing the City's renewable energy portfolio, reducing water consumption to record levels, and putting us on the path to be coal free by 2020."

Villaraigosa first appointed Nahai to the board of water and power commissioners in 2005, and Nahai quickly rose to head that board. Mary Nichols, now head of the California Air Resources Board, served on the DWP board with Nahai. "DWP is a very tough organization, and a very troubled organization right now," she said, while attending the Governors' Global Climate Summit in Century City. "I think David gave it his energy and his commitment and provided a lot of leadership but obviously the mayor and the commission decided to go in a different direction."

Nahai has presided over the department at a time of dramatic expansion into renewable energy, driven both by mandate and by Villaraigosa's promises. When Nahai first became a commissioner, DWP counted 3% renewables. Now the utility says about 14% of its power comes from renewable sources. "That would have to be the most important thing that he did. And the numbers speak for themselves," Nichols said. "The department really is in the process of transforming itself."

LA has long relied on out-of-state coal power, which has had the additional benefit of keeping rates low. Villaraigosa vowed just months ago to remove coal entirely from the DWP's energy portfolio within 11 years. Now DWP is planning to get 40 percent of its energy from solar, wind, geothermal or other renewable sources by 2020.

Those advances and aspirations have come with costs: financial costs, in the form of proposals for higher water and power rates for Angelenos, and political costs for Nahai.

Nahai drew ire from neighborhood and particularly valley activists for water and power rate increases the DWP requested to fund big capital projects, including infrastructure and renewables. Nahai also took the heat for the failure of Measure B, on the March ballot, which would have mandated DWP develop, own and operate a third of its own renewable energy - and brought with it new jobs for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18 - the DWP's union, led by local chief Brian D'Arcy. Most recently, Nahai has faced scrutiny in the last month for water main breaks around Los Angeles.

Nichols said Nahai had worked to repair LA's relationship with regions beyond its limits from which it has long drawn resources: the Eastern Sierra, where Nahai directed the rewetting of the lower Owens River, and the deser communities, where LA has been contemplating new energy transmission, as well as solar, wind and geothermal power.

Nichols also pointed out that the DWP's rates are - and have been - lower than those charged by other southern California utilities. "Now given the state of the economy overall, there's great reluctance to allow them to project out into the future the kinds of rate increases they need to get the job done. And that plus very rigid union contracts is really making it very difficult for them to cope with their problems."

In the mayor's statement, Nahai said his resignation will take effect immediately. While neither the mayor nor the DWP has made clear who will take the department's reins on an interim basis, Villaraigosa has vowed a national search for the next general manager. The mayor's green czar, S. David Freeman, led the DWP for four years ending in 2001.