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Penalties to Start for Water Providers That Fail to Cut Usage 10%

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mandatory water restrictions will move one step closer to South Bay residents and businesses on Friday, when wholesale water agencies begin imposing penalties on municipal and private water providers that fail to cut consumption by 10%.

Local water officials are scrambling to pass on the cost by creating similar penalties for South Bay consumers. It is still unclear how high the penalties will ultimately be, but officials expect them to be imposed in some South Bay communities as early as March 1.

Officials say the only time mandatory water restrictions have been imposed in the South Bay was in 1977, when the city of Los Angeles briefly implemented curbs affecting San Pedro, Wilmington, Harbor City and the Harbor Gateway.

“This is new for all of us,” Torrance water official Charles Schaich said Wednesday. “Cities are calling us to find out what we’re doing, and we’re calling others to find out what they’re doing. There’s a lot of concern.”

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Said Rubye Rittgers, a Dominguez Water Co. official who has been conducting standing-room-only hearings on mandatory measures: “All I can say is pray for rain. A lot of rain.”

Causing the commotion are the penalties being imposed by two water wholesale agencies: the Metropolitan Water District, whose customers include Los Angeles and Torrance, and the West Basin Mu nicipal Water District, which sells MWD water to all other South Bay water providers.

Under measures approved by the West Basin on Monday and the MWD in January, the two agencies starting Friday will triple the price of water that municipal and private providers use in excess of the conservation goal.

To avoid penalizing customers who complied with calls for voluntary water conservation last summer, performance will be compared on a month-to-month basis to the period June, 1989, through May, 1990. Rebates will be paid to local water companies and agencies that conserve more than 10%.

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West Basin and MWD officials say the 10% goal could well be boosted to 15% or 20% next month if current drought conditions continue. “The news we’ve been getting is doomsville,” West Basin spokeswoman Sarann Kruse said Wednesday.

Faced with all this, cities and private water companies in the South Bay are gearing up to create similar penalties for consumers. Taking the lead so far is Manhattan Beach, which approved a plan earlier this month to penalize residents and businesses who fail to trim water use by 10%.

Manhattan Beach leaders expect the penalties to take effect April 1. Violators will be warned for the first infraction, charged $25 for the second, and charged $50 for subsequent violations.

Others are not far behind. The cities of Hawthorne, Inglewood, Los Angeles and Torrance are scheduled to consider mandatory water restriction plans next month. And two private water companies serving the South Bay will seek California Public Utilities Commission approval next month for water curbs.

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The companies are Dominguez Water Co., which serves Carson, part of Torrance and unincorporated areas, and California Water Service Co., which supplies the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Redondo Beach and Hermosa Beach. Penalties called for in both proposals would take effect March 1.

Southern California Water Co., which supplies Gardena, Lawndale and parts of Hawthorne, Inglewood, Lennox and Carson, has no immediate plans to set up a mandatory program, according to Rusty Hodges, the company’s district superintendent.

The company is holding off because it is reluctant to impose mandatory measures on customers who have made strides in water conservation in recent years, Hodges says. But he added that the company is reprogramming its computer billing system in case mandatory steps prove unavoidable.

“We have to prepare. We have no choice at this point,” Hodges said Wednesday.

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Local water providers say they may be able to reduce the amount their customers have to conserve by pumping more water from wells. But the amount won’t be much, they say, because only 20% of the South Bay’s water comes from wells, and there are legal limits on pumping.

Many water officials say they have had to face complicated issues--and the prospect of considerable costs--as they prepare their mandatory water-saving plans. Torrance estimates that in the 1991-92 budget year mandatory conservation efforts could cost the city $250,000, Bill Heisner, the city’s water utility director, said Wednesday.

Heisner said the cost includes pay for two new employees, reprogramming the city’s computer bill ing system and a public information drive to ensure that residents understand the new water rules.

Officials are also confronting a bewildering array of questions about special situations. In response, they have had to study how their programs should account for factors such as previous conservation efforts and changes in the size of households, businesses and factories.

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Rittgers of Dominguez Water Co. says such questions have prompted huge turnouts for public hearings her company has held on its mandatory water conservation plan. The biggest surprise was a hearing the company held this month at the Holiday Inn Harbor Gateway in Torrance.

“We were expecting 400, and 1,000 showed up,” Rittgers said Wednesday. “We had to turn people away. We’ve never seen anything like it.”

Local water officials say they also have to keep an eye on other forces affecting their plans. One is the likelihood that the MWD and the West Basin will soon require even steeper reductions in water use.

Another is the state Water Resources Control Board, which is scheduled next Thursday to consider imposing water conservation measures of its own. Potentially, these could eclipse restrictions implemented at the local level.

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And most important is the course of California’s drought, which so far has shown no sign of easing. Said Larry Gallagher, vice president of the West Basin’s board of directors: “I’ve talked to water planners who say we have already gone past their worst-case scenarios.”


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