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Eve of Restriction : DWP Braces for Torrent of Water Rationing Appeals

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s March 1, and all Los Angeles city residents and business owners have been ordered to begin cutting back their water usage by 10%, based on 1986 levels.

But you have a problem and maybe it goes like this:

Your son was away at college in 1986 and now is living at home--and taking three showers a day. Or you recently built and filled a swimming pool and installed $20,000 worth of landscaping that you don’t want to let wither and die. Or you were living abroad in 1986 and rented out your house to a smaller family. Or you own an apartment house that was half-vacant five years ago but is fully occupied now.

What are you going to do? Grimace and bear the new restrictions? Pay fines? Take your case to court?

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If a proposed water rationing plan is approved, as expected, by the City Council on Tuesday, it may unleash a maelstrom of protests. Apartment landlords may accuse their tenants of waste but have no way to determine how much water each tenant consumes--or how much of any fine for excessive use to pass along. Thousands of homeowners may find themselves in a predicament, faced with a water allotment that does not reflect changed needs.

The Department of Water and Power says that it is bracing to handle 100,000 formal appeals from among its 650,000 customers once the rationing law goes into effect.

But DWP officials say that they are prepared to listen to all of the fairness questions that will be raised--and that customers with legitimate reasons for exceeding their water allotments need not panic.

“Only those who are truly wasting water have anything to fear,” said James M. Derry, DWP customer service director.

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Enforcement measures will range from stiff escalating fines to severe restriction or termination of the violator’s water service.

The proposed cutback ordinance calls for reducing water use by 10% starting March 1 and another 5% starting May 1, based on 1986 consumption levels.

Derry said 1986 was chosen because it was the last year of near-normal rainfall and snowpack in California, which is entering the fifth year of its worst drought in six decades.

That also was the year that the DWP launched several water conservation programs, so it does not want to penalize customers who voluntarily have made a considerable reduction already, Derry said.

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If the council passes the rationing ordinance, the DWP will begin mailing out bills later this week to all its customers that will include information on how many gallons of water per day they will be allowed to use during the next two months. Allotments in succeeding months may vary, depending on the amount of water that was used during the corresponding period in 1986.

Already, worried water customers have been calling DWP’s water conservation office at the rate of about 500 a day, offering a wide range of reasons why they may not be able to live within their water allotments.

“Whether we have thought of every eventuality, I’m sure we haven’t,” said DWP water conservation manager Thomas Jamentz, who will supervise the appeals process that will begin in May.

Jamentz said a few unusual scenarios have arisen from the calls, including one from a man who said his water needs are excessive because all of his relatives come to his house to bathe. That case probably will require investigation, Jamentz said.

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However, Jamentz said he expects most of the 100,000 anticipated appeals cases to fall into one of several categories: a rise in the dwelling’s occupancy level, perhaps because of births or retirements; the addition of water-consuming appliances or vital medical apparatus, such as a dialysis machine, and installation of new landscaping or a swimming pool.

Derry said the most unusual case he could recall from 1977--the last time that water rationing was imposed in Los Angeles--came from a San Fernando Valley man who had recently started a worm farm.

“We didn’t know how to deal with that,” said Derry, who was the agency’s conservation coordinator then.

“We contacted a couple of universities and got a feel for how much water would be required in terms of allowing the worms to live and reproduce,” he said, and devised “an equitable adjustment” of the man’s allotment.

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Many water customers say that they will find it difficult to comply with a 10% to 15% cutback because they have been studiously conserving water for several years.

“My usage has been cut in half since 1986,” said Marta Stang of Pacific Palisades, whose conservation efforts have included disconnecting her automatic sprinklers, shortening shower time and installing low-flow toilets. “I really tried to cut down as far as I could go. It would be impossible” to cut back much more.

According to Derry, allowances will be made in such cases. The water rationing ordinance will exempt from further cutbacks water customers whose usage falls below a certain level. In other cases where legitimate reasons for a larger allotment are presented, he added, DWP officials will work with customers to revise the base-year figure.

For customers who recently started a business or live in a house that was built after 1986, the water allotment will be based on the average for a typical household or business of similar size or nature, Derry said.

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Of the 73,000 appeals that were received in 1977 by the department, 71% were made by customers whose households had grown. Derry said he expects those sorts of cases to form the largest category of appeals this time as well.

Customers who want to appeal their allotments will be asked to fill out a form detailing the reasons for needing to use more water, Derry said. Each case will be evaluated by the Water Conservation Control Group, made up of 27 DWP officials and outside consultants with experience in customer relations.

If a customer’s appeal is denied by the control group, Jamentz will review the case. If he also turns down the appeal, the customer will be able to press his case before a special citizens panel, to be appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley and the City Council. Derry said there will be six such panels with three members each. They will function as a virtual Supreme Court of water rationing.

In 1977, the department granted 92% of the 73,000 appeals that were lodged--and still managed to reduce overall water usage by 19%, according to Derry. Only a 10% citywide cutback had been required.

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Derry said those figures show that although the proposed cutbacks may seem severe, they are attainable even with flexible application of the law.

Gerald Gewe, DWP engineer of water resources planning, said officials expect the 15% reduction called for by May 1 to actually result in a 20% savings citywide.

“It’s a gut feeling,” said Gewe, “but we figure if we ask for 15%, there will be enough people who will do more than they are required to do to make up that extra 5%.”

Under the proposed DWP plan, customers will have two billing cycles, or four months, in which to meet their goal.

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The May bill will report whether the 10% goal was achieved. If it was not met, a customer will have the next two-month period in which to try again without being fined.

By July, if a customer still has not managed to adjust water usage to stay within the allotment, the DWP will begin to impose fines, Derry said.

The penalty for the first violation would be $3 per billing unit (748 gallons) of excess use, plus 15% of the total water bill. A second violation would cost the customer $3 per billing unit, plus 25% of the total bill. The fine for a third violation would rise to $4 per billing unit and 75% of the total bill.

Those penalties would be imposed on top of the 9- to 15-cent surcharge DWP commissioners also are seeking as a way to compensate for revenues that will be lost under mandatory rationing.

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After four violations, DWP officials will consider harsher penalties. If it appears that a violator has failed to make any effort at conservation, the department could install a flow restrictor on the customer’s water main for 48 hours, Derry said. This device would reduce water flow from 56 gallons to 1 gallon per minute.

If the device was applied, “it would take a minute-and-a-half to flush a toilet,” said Derry. “Needless to say, you couldn’t take a shower.”

If the water restrictor does not bring about the desired change in usage, water service would be terminated for 48 hours, he said.

The rationing law may pose the stickiest problems for apartment dwellers and their landlords. Because most apartment buildings have only one water meter, it is not possible for landlords to determine how much water each tenant uses. If a landlord is slapped with a fine for going over his allotment, he has little way of knowing whom to blame.

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“How do you control your tenants from not taking 20-minute showers?” asked Charles Isham, executive vice president of the 12,000-member Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles.

The association is urging the city to adopt a measure that would allow owners of the city’s 480,000 rent-controlled apartments to pass on to tenants 100% of any fines for excessive water use, based on a weighted formula that would take into account the number of persons in each dwelling unit.

The Rent Stabilization Division of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Production is recommending a 50% pass-through. The reason for the lower percentage is that landlords can control much of the water consumption by changing landscaping and watering schedules and installing low-flow devices in shower heads and toilets, said Anna Ortega, assistant director in the rent stabilization office.

The office also is proposing that the City Council bar landlords in rent-controlled buildings from shutting down laundry facilities as a means of saving water.

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Larry Gross, head of the Coalition for Economic Survival, a Hollywood-based tenants’ rights group, said asking tenants to share the fines might be unfair in many cases, particularly if landlords have been negligent in fixing leaks.

“Obviously, there is a need to conserve water, but we have some concerns,” Gross said. “A lot of times, renters do not have any control over the situation in their building, such as a slum building downtown. Low-income tenants could be severely impacted with these penalties and it will be no fault of their own.”


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