Troubled Waters

L.A.’s resources are drying up. Energy costs are soaring. The DWP’s new chief says it’s the perfect time for us to go green

Los Angeles magazine, July 2008

By Kevin Roderick

“Isn’t this beautiful?” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asks through his biggest smile, a walking Eddie Bauer ad in blue jeans, a wool scarf, and hiking boots untouched by trail dust. His helicopter has just dropped him in the Owens Valley, next to the sluice gate where snowmelt enters the Los Angeles Aqueduct for the 223-mile trip across the desert. Comet tails of white powder blow off the peaks of the eastern Sierra to provide a dream backdrop. Villaraigosa has come to release water into the Lower Owens River as proof that he is a friend of the environment. It’s a nice gesture, but hardly impressive to Inyo County’s ranchers and fishermen. They’ve heard everything in the eight decades since Los Angeles dried up the Lower Owens. This morning, though, they are laughing easily with a natty figure who is sporting a black turtleneck and an English boarding school accent and hovering at the mayor’s shoulder.

 H. David Nahai

H. David Nahai is the one Angeleno the locals trust—so far. At the podium he quotes Jackson Browne lyrics about repairing history’s excesses and vows to “preserve this Eden we see around us.” He’s been preaching this message across the state. It’s persuasive stuff here because Nahai is the new chief executive of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power—an environmentalist in charge of an agency whose tentacles extend across the West.

Nahai got the job last year despite his lack of the usual credentials. He’s a real estate lawyer, not an engineer or a city hall insider, and managing a firm with a dozen attorneys is not like running a department with 8,500 employees. Nahai is something of a policy wonk about water and the perils of global warming, but that doesn’t necessarily qualify him to lead a $4.2 billion monolith whose storied history begins with aqueduct builder William Mulholland. Lately the DWP’s image has taken some hits. Too many summer blackouts. Threats of water rationing. An unruly union and a scandal over public relations contracts that helped bring down Mayor Jim Hahn.

Villaraigosa tapped Nahai anyway, charging him with transforming the DWP into a clean, green, trouble-free operation. Just keeping the water running and preventing blackouts will help hugely when the mayor runs for reelection next year. For Nahai, turning the agency into one of the environmental good guys is the fun part.

In his first seven months the department has broken ground on the nation’s largest city-owned wind farm, taken steps to reduce the amount of coal burned at power plants in Utah and Arizona, and joined with Villaraigosa to propose what Nahai calls a “bold and visionary plan” to alter the way Los Angeles thinks about water. “We’re making history,” he says. “We’re changing the direction of the city.”

Nahai is enjoying his new life as a public figure. At a recent book party that he and his wife, the novelist Gina Nahai, attended at Gore Vidal’s house, he and the host got into a debate about solar power. “Everyone has an opinion about DWP,” says Nahai. He’s become a regular on TV and radio, willing to play the part of the city’s environmental conscience. All this makes him, at 55, the most watchable new player on L.A.’s political scene as well as an important adviser to the mayor.

They met when Villaraigosa was an assemblyman and Nahai was a member of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, an appointee of Governor Pete Wilson. Nahai had been a Republican, as were many Iranian Jewish immigrants who blamed Democrat Jimmy Carter for the shah’s fall and the rise of Iran’s Islamic Revolution.

Nahai was born into a Tehran family that owned Iran’s largest private insurance company. At ten he was sent to England to receive an education. After earning two degrees at the London School of Economics, he worked as a barrister before enrolling at UC Berkeley to study the law of international commerce. Nahai, who was at Berkeley when the Ayatollah Khomeini came to power, joined the diaspora of Tehran Jews who moved to Los Angeles. He practiced law, invested in real estate, and bought a home in Benedict Canyon, where he and his wife are raising three children.

The water board provided an outlet for Nahai’s environmentalism as well as a place for him to get a taste of America’s democratic process. He threw himself into the give-and-take of balancing the legal rights of polluters and the demands of nature. Nahai managed to anger people on both sides, but his approach was usually moderate and safe: A good environment is good for business. Governors from both parties reappointed him to the board; he served four terms as its chair.

“David is a brilliant thinker and someone who I think can show great leadership,” says David Beckman, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council. “He brought a level of professionalism and thoughtfulness that was rare at the regional water board.”

Along the way Nahai evolved into a Democrat and finds that party’s policies toward Iran and Israel more to his liking. Four years ago he led a Jewish group that supported John Kerry’s bid for president; this year he backed Hillary Clinton. When Villa-raigosa ran against Hahn in 2005, Nahai got deeply involved in a political campaign for the first time. He solicited donations from other Iranian Jews and debated Hahn’s chief of staff.

Villaraigosa rewarded Nahai with a seat on the Board of Water and Power Commissioners, the DWP’s unpaid policy-making panel. He quickly became its president and resident green advocate.

His interest in the environment began when he studied the existentialists in boarding school, Nahai starts to explain during an interview in his office atop DWP headquarters on Bunker Hill. Abruptly he begs off, fearing that talk of Camus and Sartre will come across as pretentious—something he’s sensitive about. His pro-environment ethic, he rephrases, “came to me as a result of a lot of reading.”

His education isn’t the only thing that sets him apart in Los Angeles political circles. He’s been called “a Middle Eastern James Bond” because of his styled black hair, careful dress, and accent. His manner of speech is his most distinctive trait, too highbrow for some tastes, pleasantly precise to others. He describes a law forcing utilities to clean up greenhouse gases “California’s beacon to the world,” while certain kinds of political discourse he finds “unseemly.”

For a volunteer commissioner, Nahai was uncommonly engaged in the details of the Department of Water and Power. His appointment to the top job also solved a problem for the mayor. Villaraigosa had inherited a DWP chief who was independent and not especially devoted to the green agenda. Ron Deaton was a city hall legend, a power broker who also was the city’s highest-paid employee after 42 years of service.

The mayor’s advisers were quietly looking for a way to encourage Deaton to retire. Then, in July 2007, he suffered a cardiac arrhythmia and collapsed while on vacation in Costa Rica. After lying in a coma for two days, he was airlifted to the States; his recovery took months. Meanwhile the draft-Nahai movement gained momentum. He denies campaigning—“I had conversations, but I didn’t initiate them,” he says—but there was buzz that he really wanted to run the DWP.

As president of the commission, Nahai had taken to calling press conferences to give updates on power outages. After Deaton fell ill, he asserted himself more in day-to-day management. An item in Rick Orlov’s politics column in the Daily News floated the idea that Nahai had put out feelers to see how his appointment might be received.

It was sticky. Deaton had been around too long to be bumped aside. When he made noises about returning to work, negotiations picked up. In October Deaton announced his retirement and went out with a bundle of cash and a catered party that filled city council chambers with former colleagues and elected officials. “Doesn’t it remind you of the wedding scene from The Godfather?” joked Councilman Herb Wesson. 

Villaraigosa named Nahai to the $310,000-a-year post and said he was proud to have an environmentalist at the helm of the DWP. “I didn’t need to do a national search for the right candidate,” the mayor said. “I had him right here. In a few months he has turned the ship around.”

Since he took office December 1, Nahai has replaced many of Deaton’s senior staffers. He has met with thousands of employees, hoping to improve morale and repair relations with the union. When Nahai arrived, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 sent out 30,000 DVDs that portrayed the agency as being in crisis.

One of his early victories was winning approval for a rate hike that was needed to pay for upgrading the power system. He cited the death of firefighter Brent Lovrien in a March explosion in Westchester to argue for the new revenue, saying the DWP’s aging equipment and 15,000 miles of underground cable—encased in decaying, oil-soaked paper—are dangerous. “All this stuff has been neglected for decades,” he says.

He deftly handled an unexpected media storm when the department was attacked for hiring lactation experts to advise employees who were breast-feeding. The money involved was small, but the controversy became instant talk-show fodder. He stared down the critics, calling the program a boost to job productivity.

More of Nahai’s time has been spent on the bigger agenda. Los Angeles gets about half of its electricity from CO2-emitting coal plants in Utah and Arizona, and it generates only 8 percent from renewable sources. Nahai’s goal is to comply with a state law requiring the city to reach 35 percent by 2020. “We’re going to make Los Angeles a leader in renewable power,” he says, citing plans to develop wind energy in Kern County and geothermal resources at the Salton Sea.

Not all environmental organizations share his enthusiasm because they fear such projects could mar the wilderness. “Does LADWP expect us to sit by until bulldozers arrive?” asks the California Desert Coalition, one of the groups fighting Nahai’s proposal to build a transmission line across the Mojave.

Water is the sexier, and potentially more troublesome, part of Nahai’s portfolio. Judges have decreed cuts in exports from the Owens Valley and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which supplies the California Aqueduct. Persistent drought in the West and the growth of cities like Las Vegas mean less water is available from the Colorado River. To keep up with the waning supply and rising population, Villaraigosa and Nahai unveiled a water strategy in May that they admit could cost $1 billion. It proposes to collect rainwater runoff in underground aquifers, require developers to use green technology, and increase the fines on residents who water lawns on hot days. Nahai says enforcement is necessary to eliminate the “washing-off-the-driveway kind of mentality we have in Los Angeles.”

It’s about time, says Mark Gold of Heal the Bay. “I strongly commend the DWP for this plan…the city has responded.”

For Nahai, the recently announced plan is part of a conversation he wants to have with us about water: how much we use, what we waste, why we should recycle. He says we need to get over our resistance to reclaiming sewage water—not just for outside use but to bathe in and drink. We’ve avoided the conversation far too long, he says. Let’s talk.

L.A. generates a lot of sewage. It all gets flushed or washed down the drain and ends up at the Hyperion Treatment Plant beside LAX or at its inland sibling, the Donald C. Tillman Water Reclamation Plant in Van Nuys. Water is separated from solids, expensively treated, and then 500,000 acre-feet a year—an amount that surpasses the consumption of most big American cities—flows into the Pacific. “That’s an intolerable waste,” Nahai says. “We have this tremendous asset that we treat to a very high degree, then we throw it away in the ocean. What’s the point of that?”

Europeans drink recycled water, he says. Orange County recently launched the biggest reclamation project in the country. He notes that some aqueduct water undergoes treatment before it gets to us. “If we’re going to drink the effluent coming from Las Vegas, we might as well drink our own,” he half-jokes.

The last time the reuse of sewage was seriously suggested, in the late 1990s, Daily News headlines screaming “toilet to tap” helped kill the project. The phrase, used again in every news story about his current proposals, haunts Nahai. “That awful moniker…did a great disservice to the city,” he says. “It should really be assigned to the garbage heap of history.”

This time Nahai plans to be the spokesman for recycled effluent. Safety will be the first concern. After treatment, the discharge would percolate into aquifers and blend with groundwater before being extracted, treated again, and piped to consumers.

“I’m confident we have an enlightened and progressive population here in Los Angeles,” he says. “When all of the facts are put before the people of L.A., stripped of the hyperbole and the demagoguery and catchphrases, they will see the sense and necessity of reclaiming water.”

Betting on enlightenment, however, is seldom rewarded. Just in case, Nahai has set aside $1.5 million for a public relations campaign and plans to make the rounds of neighborhood councils, which are always skeptical of anything the DWP does. He opposes putting the recycling question to a public vote, preferring to let elected officials—many of whom are allies of the mayor—decide. He may be a purist, but he’s no fool.

Photography by Mark Hanauer