The most unexpected part of the meeting was the information briefing on the State Water Project Current Issues and Challenges, delivered by Ralph Torres, Deputy Director for the State Water Project. (To view the PowerPoint presentation, go here and click on Attachment 1: Presentation under Agenda Item 10.)
Turns out that from an operations and maintenance standpoint, the SWP is in trouble.
The SWP has 189 units, including pumping and generation facilities. The operational availability of these units to make deliveries was below 80% last year. Torres said that for the first time in 2010, the SWP actually missed making water deliveries.
The SWP schedules outages for activities such as testing relays. But as a result of unplanned breakdowns, the forced outage rate has been climbing relative to scheduled outages.
What’s the problem? The SWP can’t find and retain qualified employees in the necessary trades and crafts. One impacted trade is water and power dispatchers – people who know, for example, how to properly schedule energy to turn on a pump.
The SWP’s turnover rate in the dispatcher classification is almost 80 percent.
There is a decline in the years of experience, so the overall level of experience is decreasing. This means that people with little experience are moving into supervisory positions.
The SWP also has problems with recruitment. Among electricians, mechanics, and operators, only 5-10% of those who apply are eligible. Sometimes none are eligible.
Torres mentioned especially the Delta Field Division, where the SWP is competing in places like Tracy with Bay Area salaries and higher living costs. SWP salaries lagged 32% below the industry median in 2010.
One result of these staffing problems is that the SWP faces a significant backlog of deferred maintenance. Deferred maintenance leads to increased energy costs, reduced equipment service life, and possibly decreased safety, for both employees and the public. Said Torres, “We won’t give up safety to deliver water.”
Also this year, the SWP paid $57,000 in fines for not meeting North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) and Western Electricity Coordinating Council (WECC) regulations for activities such as relay testing.
In response to a question from Commissioner Ball, Torres said that the State Water Contractors are willing to pay higher compensation. However, the impacted trades are part of statewide public employee union classifications. The union can’t offer more money to one segment than to others. Commissioner Cogdill suggested that this problem might be addressed by creating a special bargaining unit.
Commissioner Del Bosque was interested in the connection between forced outages and water volume. He wondered if the SWP budget suffers when the water volume is down. Torres answered that they have to have energy availability regardless of water volume, and that power costs are almost half the project costs.
Commissioner Curtin suggested using private contractors, but he wanted that off the record.
Is education the problem? Torres said that they have a good 4-year apprenticeship program, but that once trained, apprentices leave for other utilities that pay more.
The commissioners lamented the loss of institutional knowledge and the threat to vital infrastructure. But the real point to take away from this presentation is that the State has lost the ability to maintain and operate the water project infrastructure they have. So how in heaven’s name can they seriously consider adding more infrastructure?