Mary Nichols, the new president of the Board of Commissioners for the L.A. Department of Water & Power, is overseeing an agency in crisis. After years of contracting scandals and a succession of permanent and interim managers, the DWP suffered a string of recent blackouts that pointed up the agency's inability to adequately maintain both its water and power systems. Nichols gained recognition as head of the state Air Resources Board under then-Gov. Jerry Brown. During her tenure, the board required cars to have catalytic converters and banning lead in gasoline. After a brief stint on the DWP board under former Mayor Tom Bradley, Nichols went to Washington as assistant administrator for air quality issues at the Environmental Protection Agency during the first Clinton administration. Shortly after returning to California, Gray Davis tapped her to be state Resources Secretary. Nichols came back to L.A. to head up the UCLA Institute for the Environment and, now, a return stint on the DWP board.

Question: Given all the problems at the Department of Water & Power, why did you agree to take the commission post?
Answer: This may not seem to be an example of upward mobility after my time in Washington and Sacramento, but I regard this as the epitome of my career. It puts all the pieces together: my work on the environment, my concern about environmental justice issues and being a steward of valuable resources. At the DWP, I have a chance to put some of this into action, to make Los Angeles the greenest big city in the country.

Q: What's your assessment of the DWP?
A: My first impression was of an agency under a lot of stress. There was an obvious need for setting direction, and I found that the people there welcomed the setting of direction. The DWP is an agency that's now in financial difficulties. We've got to make some decisions and make them fast.

Q: What kind of decisions?
A: There's a need to make new capital expenditures and to look ahead to how we will get our water and energy 20 years from now. But the agency lacks the financial resources to make major new leaps forward and the rates have been frozen for a very long time. Decisions on how and when to seek more revenue are bound to be controversial and have to be weighed against a lot of other factors.


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