Three Long Beach residents are vying for a seat on a little-known but vital regional water board.

Incumbent John D. S. Allen, attorney Gerrie Schipske and lobbyist Mike Murchison are running in the Nov. 8 election for a seat on the Water Replenishment District board, which manages groundwater sources that support four million Southern California residents. Long Beach alone draws between 55% and 60% of its drinking water from underground sources.

Area 3, which Allen currently represents, includes 800,000 residents in seven cities—Long Beach, Signal Hill, San Pedro, Lakewood, Hawaiian Gardens, Artesia and Cerritos.

The district, though often largely invisible to voters, is “incredibly important,” according to Madelyn Glickfield, co-director of the UCLA Water Resources Group and a former member of the California Coastal Commission and Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The WRD is one of the most successful replenishment districts in the state, said Glickfield. The district’s work treating wastewater to the point that it is drinkable and also injecting water back into the aquifers to prevent saltwater contamination is “extremely important,” Glickfield added.

The importance of groundwater became even more apparent when Colorado River water restrictions kicked in earlier this month, Glickfield said.

On Sept. 6, a break in the Upper Feeder Pipeline necessitated restrictions for two weeks in water usage that are affecting more than four million Southern California residents, including those in Long Beach, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Lake Mead is also now teetering on “dead pool” status, Glickfield said, meaning the water level would be insufficient to power Hoover Dam.

To keep groundwater sources stable, the Water Replenishment District sets limits for withdrawals.

For Long Beach, this means the city can pump about 35,000 acre-feet of water out of the ground each year, which equates to about 60% of the city’s total water usage. An acre-foot is enough water to supply one to two average households with water for a year.

To do this, the WRD operates water recycling plants, such as the Leo J. Vander Lans facility in Long Beach and the Albert Robles plant in Pico Rivera, which have the capacity to treat 8 million and 1.48 million gallons of sewage water, respectively, to the point that it’s potable.

Incumbent Allen, who was first elected to the board in 2014 and is its current president, is running for his third term. A former prosecutor with the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office, Allen also served nearly eight years as a Long Beach Water Commissioner. Not surprisingly, he says his challengers lack his “wealth of water policy experience.”

“If there’s water, it’s another boring day for the Water Replenishment District, and I live for boring days,” Allen said. “I want those basins full.”

To do that, Allen says he wants to see more water recycling, including a new plant in Torrance to treat slightly salty “brackish” water.

Allen’s campaign raised about $22,000, spent nearly $16,000 and has about $48,000 in the bank as of the end of September, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar of Voters.

Murchison, a lobbyist who runs Murchison Consulting, has lobbied Long Beach officials for 10 firms and organizations during the first six months of 2022, including Verizon, AAA, Culture Cannabis and Zenith, according to the City Clerk’s most recent lobbying report.

He said the importance of wastewater projects became ingrained in him in the 1990s when he first became a consultant.

He also said that Allen is “out of touch” with what should be the priorities of the district. Murchison pointed to the WRD’s June 2021 hiring of Stephan Tucker as general manager. When Tucker’s salary and benefits were added up, they totaled about $500,000—far in excess of the governor’s compensation, Murchison said.

“I will be focused on water infrastructure and water storage from day one,” said Murchison.

Allen didn’t argue with the dollar amount, but said well-trained, competent general managers like Tucker “don’t come cheap.”

Murchison’s campaign raised $98,000, spent about $62,000 and still has a little over $50,000 left in the bank as of late September, according to the LA County Registrar of Voters.

As for Shipske, this is the fourth race she, a former Long Beach City Councilmember, has entered in the last year. While she set up campaigns to run for City Council District 5 and then the Long Beach mayoral contest, Schipske ultimately ran for City Attorney in the 2022 primary election, losing to Deputy City Attorney Dawn McIntosh by nearly 10 percentage points.

Schipske was unavailable for an interview for this story.

Her campaign website stresses that she’s a “water ratepayer advocate” who had previously sued Long Beach to block a transfer from the water department to the general fund, which the courts declared unconstitutional earlier this year.

On her website, Schipske criticizes Allen for having been a member of the Water Replenishment District since 2014, during which “the WRD was sued by several cities for illegal assessments.” The cities Schipske is referring to—Downey, Bellflower, Cerritos and Signal Hill—sued the WRD years prior to Allen joining the district.

The lawsuit was settled for $9.1 million in 2015, a few months after Allen joined the district, according to the Times.

Schipske also criticized Murchison for “currently working with” a company called Silverlakes in Norco on a “water infrastructure project.” Though Murchison Consulting’s website does indeed list Silverlakes under “current projects,” Murchison denied ever being hired to perform any work on Silverlakes’ behalf.

The Water Replenishment District was first formed in the late 1950s when the need to regulate Southern California’s underground drinking water sources became apparent. Decades of overpumping the aquifers beneath the region had depleted many wells, and as the groundwater levels near the coast dropped below sea level, seawater seeped in and contaminated much-needed aquifers.

This led officials throughout the region to call for new rules managing the pumping of groundwater, and they put the issue before the voters in late 1959. Though just 11% of registered voters went to the polls, the pro-WRD side won easily with nearly 80% of the vote, according to a Nov. 18, 1959 Valley Times article.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with more recent campaign finance information.

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Anthony Pignataro is an investigative reporter and editor for the Long Beach Post. He has close to three decades of experience in journalism leading numerous investigations and long-form journalism projects for the OC Weekly and other publications. He joined the Post in May 2021.