EDITORIAL: Skilled workers are vital

Unable to match the salaries of private and some public utilities, California cannot retain skilled employees to maintain and operate its complex and vital water delivery system.

As The Sacramento Bee's Jon Ortiz reported on Thursday, years of staffing shortages and turnover among workers occupying skilled trades and craft positions at state hydroelectric plants have compromised safety and efficiency.

In the short run, the solution will be to negotiate new labor contracts authorizing higher salaries. In the long run, the structure of the state water system must be freed of constraints of state hiring and procurement rules.

The State Water Project -- a vast, aging network of aqueducts, dams, reservoirs, pumping stations and hydroelectric plants -- supplies water and power to 25 million people. Its safe, efficient operation is vital to our economy and public health.

During the last two years, the water project has experienced a 10% to 15% vacancy rate for highly sought-after skilled workers. State pay rates are 65% lower than industry standards and dangerously restrict the state's ability to recruit and retain the best talent. As soon as the state trains new hydro plant workers at an average cost of $300,000 or $400,000, public and private utilities lure them away.

While Gov. Jerry Brown seeks to hold down pay, a laudable goal, skimping on pay for highly skilled, hard-to-retain workers makes no sense in this specific case.

Pay and benefits for State Water Project workers do not come out of the state's general fund. Rather, water contractors, the beneficiaries of the system and their water and power customers pay those costs. The increased efficiency and safety that skilled workers provide more than cover the cost of their higher salaries.

For example, a devastating fire at the Thermalito Pumping and Generating Plant near Oroville last Thanksgiving was blamed in part on understaffing. The fire cost the state millions of dollars in lost power generation. Hundreds of millions more will be needed to rebuild.

Also, in 2011 and 2012 the state had to pay an extra $70 million for energy because it didn't have the personnel to operate pumps when energy was cheapest.

The issue is not new. In 2010, the Little Hoover Commission recommended moving the State Water Project into a separate, independent state-owned water authority to "create an organization designed specifically to operate the project." Brown and lawmakers should dust off that report and seriously consider its recommendations.