REGIONAL REPORT THE DROUGHT : Many Cities Save Water Without Penalties


As the Los Angeles City Council prepares to vote Friday on a mandatory water-rationing ordinance, many Southern California cities already are conserving an average of 12% by using less stringent water-saving approaches, according to the giant Metropolitan Water District.

From San Diego to Glendale, water officials reported that usage has dropped by 8% to 16% under largely voluntary programs since officials asked residents four months ago to conserve water in the face of a fourth year of drought conditions.

In Orange County, consumption was down 5% to 8% during June, compared to the same month last year and following adjustments for population growth and temperature differences, according to the Municipal Water District of Orange County.

Even without rationing, Los Angeles' current program is one of the most successful, with consumption down 15.5% during June compared to the same month in 1986, according to the city Department of Water and Power.

The success of voluntary programs--and limited mandatory restrictions such as bans on daytime lawn watering and hosing down driveways--has convinced the largest water agencies in the Southland that rationing is not necessary this year, according to interviews Monday.

"You've got to use the carrot before the stick," said Carl Boronkay, general manager of the MWD, which serves 27 agencies stretching from Ventura to the Mexican border. "Save the stick if you think we can accomplish this without it . . . and I think we will."

The MWD has asked water agencies to cut water use 10% this year to make up for a projected shortage in supplies.

But water agencies have been using about 12% less, according to an MWD study obtained by The Times.

In Orange County, several water agencies report that customers are heeding the call for voluntary conservation. The Moulton Niguel Water District in Laguna Niguel, for example, reported that it has experienced a 10% reduction in usage for both the months of May and June.

"You have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to realize there is a water problem," said Jim Smith, director of operations for the district that covers much of South Orange County. "I think people are being very conscious how they use water."

At the Irvine Ranch Water District in Irvine, officials say the public's response to voluntary conservation is evidenced by the fact that customers have snapped up about 1,000 water awareness kits in recent weeks. Many more customers are also asking for water audits to see how they can better conserve, said Joyce Gwidt, public relations manager for the district.

In Long Beach, Water Department General Manager Dan Davis said residents are conserving at about the 10% level, when figures are adjusted for population growth and weather changes. In addition, the city gets about 7% of its water supply from reclaimed sewage.

"We're encouraged that the water conservation ethic is here," said Davis. "Long Beach has certainly done its part. . . . If everyone else does, we'll get through this year."

And Davis, like most other Southern California water officials interviewed, said he believes they can get through the year without rationing.

Bradley has called on the MWD to follow his lead and encourage its members agencies to adopt rationing programs, but even Los Angeles' eight representatives on the MWD board of directors have ignored the mayor's call.

Some Los Angeles directors have approached Boronkay informally about the rationing idea, but they dropped it in the face of apparent strong opposition from the other member agencies.

"We just know it would never pass," said Marilyn Garcia, a Bradley appointee to the board.

So far, in this fourth year of drought, rationing has been implemented in only a few hard-hit areas of Southern California that have special water supply problems, such as Santa Barbara and San Clemente.

Many central Coast cities not connected to the state water project have adopted rationing, and in the north, San Francisco implemented rationing several months ago.

Los Angeles would be the first city in the south with a ample supply of water for this year to adopt rationing. Initially, Bradley warned residents that if they did not cut use by 10%, they would face rationing.

Since that first call in April, city residents have responded, according to figures complied by the DWP. Besides the 15.5% cut in June, water use dropped 11.7% in May and 12.2% in April, compared to the same months in 1986.

But Bradley has pressed for rationing, arguing that residents will backslide once the issue drops off the front pages and evening news programs. "It will be impossible to keep up the steady drum beat of publicity," said Mark Fabiani, Bradley's chief of staff. And besides, he said, if saving 10% is so easy, only those who are not cooperating will be snared by the program's surcharges.

Under Bradley's proposal, residents would be limited to using 90% of the water they used in comparable periods of 1986--before the drought and city-sponsored conservation efforts began.

Residents and businesses using more than their allotment would face a surcharge of $3 per billing unit of excess use, plus 15% of the water bill on the first violation. A second violation would cost $3 dollars per billing unit, plus 25% of the bill, and a third violation would boost the surcharge to $4 per excess billing unit and 75% of the bill. A billing unit is 748 gallons; the average family uses between 300 and 500 gallons a day.

Implementation of rationing would cost more than $1 million dollars and all residents would face a 9-cent per billing unit increase--about $2 to the average residential bill--to cover the costs of the program and the reduced water sales.

With rationing, Fabiani said, Los Angeles will be better prepared than the rest of the Southland should the drought drag on into a fifth year. A 10% cut this year, he said, may keep the city from having to adopt a 25% rationing plan next year if the drought continues.

The prospect of rationing has kept the issue in front of residents and contributed to the high rate of conservation, Fabiani said.

Ironically, the two largest Southland cities--San Diego and Los Angeles--have the highest rates of conservation and have achieved them through opposite approaches.

Los Angeles has carried the banner for mandatory rationing, arguing that it will be necessary in the long run.

Boronkay of the MWD, which wholesales water to both agencies, said Monday, "We just want the goal accomplished. However that is done is OK with us."

Times staff writer Jim Carlton contributed to this report.

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