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MWD Ready to Fine Water Agencies for Not Conserving

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Metropolitan Water District is preparing to levy stiff fines against more than half of Southern California’s water agencies for failing to conserve water, The Times has learned. Most notably affected is San Diego’s water authority, which may face a penalty as high as $4 million.

MWD officials said Wednesday that the majority of the 27 agencies it serves did not comply this month with rationing guidelines that required an average 17% cutback in usage.

“It looks as if two-thirds to one-half of our members will exceed their allocations for the month of February and will pay penalties in the hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of dollars,” said MWD Assistant General Manager Duane Georgeson.

He declined to disclose which agencies had violated rationing guidelines except to say that the San Diego County Water Authority was among those performing the worst, while the city of Los Angeles was among those in compliance.

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Lester Snow, general manager of the San Diego County Water Authority, confirmed that MWD officials advised him on Wednesday that the agency could be penalized up to $4 million for failing to achieve the reduction. Snow said the proposed penalty was for “utilizing water over the February allocation.”

San Diego’s water authority purchased more water than it needed in February knowing that it would be penalized by the MWD, Snow said. But he said he expects the recommended $4-million fine to be offset in future months by savings in water use.

Snow said the extra water was stored to help meet expected summer demand and to help local growers who are worried about crop losses later this year.

“Taking extra water will help the flower and avocado growers now. Later, they will be able to institute drastic conservation programs and save more water during the summer,” Snow said. “On balance, we expect to meet all conservation requirements by the end of summer.”

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MWD officials and their water customers will meet in emergency session on Monday, officials said, to discuss various proposals, including the recommended fines.

Each of the water agencies served by the MWD is assigned a monthly allotment of water. For each acre-foot of water it uses over that amount, it must pay a fine three times the normal price of that water. An acre-foot is the amount of water the average Los Angeles family of five uses in 18 months.

The MWD began imposing a conservation plan on its customers as California entered its fifth year of drought. In December, it ordered agencies to reduce consumption by 10%; it increased the reduction to 17% by Feb. 1, then ordered a 31% cutback effective March 1.

At its emergency meeting Monday, the MWD’s board will consider imposing cutbacks of 50% in the wake of the state’s decision to halt all of its water deliveries to the MWD in mid-March. The state’s action will reduce the district’s water supplies by half, forcing it to rely almost exclusively on the Colorado River.

Georgeson said MWD officials were discouraged by the number of agencies that did not meet February conservation requirements and may have to consider new measures, including stiffer fines, distribution of water-saving devices and a $3-million advertising program to promote conservation.

“We have the ability to do what other water purveyors have already done--namely to increase the financial penalties to whatever amount gets the job done,” Georgeson said. “If the triple (charge) doesn’t get the job done, then maybe we will have to go to six, nine or even 12 times the normal charge.”

The MWD is authorized to levy fines or “incentive charges” under the contracts it holds with the individual water agencies.

MWD General Manager Carl Boronkay said he will report to his board of directors March 12 on which agencies are not in compliance with the conservation guidelines. He said he probably will not recommend any changes in penalties until an April meeting.

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In the meantime, he said the district is considering buying water-saving devices that would be distributed through water agencies free to residents. One such device, he said, is a plastic tub that could be placed in the bottom of showers to catch water for re-use.

Georgeson acknowledged that some areas, such as Los Angeles, have an easier time complying because they have other sources of water. In addition to the water it gets from the MWD, Los Angeles is supplied by underground sources and the Owens Valley.

Georgeson said San Diego, on the other hand, must rely on the MWD for about 90% to 95% of its supply.

Before fines are actually levied, the MWD will consider its customers’ requests for “adjustments” in allotments. He said some agencies have complained that they have circumstances that warrant higher allotments.

He said agencies that are assessed fines can get some of that money back later in the year if they use less than their allotments in future months.

Times staff writer H.G. Reza contributed to this report from San Diego.


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