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Rain Putting a Damper on DWP’s Drought Strategy : Water: Storms make it harder to persuade the public that the tough conservation drive isn’t all wet.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nearly a year ago, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power drained the moat in front of its Hope Street headquarters, hoping the dry cement would dramatize the agency’s commitment to conservation in a time of severe drought.

Today, three weeks into mandatory rationing, the moat is filled with at least six inches of water-- rainwater-- dumped by storms that began drenching the state as soon as the cutbacks took effect.

“Every time the department has made an announcement it’s seemed like it was a rainy day,” said Thomas A. Jamentz, the DWP’s water conservation manager. “But it’s really not a joking matter. The drought still needs to be taken seriously.”

There is no doubt that most of the agency’s 11,000 employees are reacting with jubilation to the much-needed moisture, especially those who made high estimates in the “Guess the Snowpack” competition going on in the 14th-floor forecasting room.

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But the recent downpours have also added an ironic twist to one of the most aggressive drought-awareness campaigns in the city’s history, making it all the more difficult to persuade the public of the need to conserve.

In fact, for many DWP workers--whose overcoats, boots and umbrellas contrast with the ubiquitous conservation messages posted on every office wall--the rain has meant aggravation, wet feet and fears of eventual unemployment.

A summer ad campaign is temporarily on hold. Switchboards have been flooded with calls about power outages. Media relations representatives have grown weary of reporters asking if the drought is over. And at least three times, the city’s crew of “droughtbusters” has had to take the day off because there was no one to bust in a downpour.

“Our standard policy now is that if it’s raining at 6 a.m., just stay home,” said John Steffin, a supervising droughtbuster. “Otherwise, we’d be defeating our own purpose.”

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None of this has been lost on the 60 members of the DWP’s water conservation unit, based in an old garment district warehouse that until last summer had been used as a movie set. They realize that their job--created by the caprices of nature--could just as easily be washed out of the agency’s $3.35-billion annual budget.

“I’m happy for the customers when it rains,” said Laura Booker, a drought consultant who answers phone inquiries about rationing. “But I also like what I’m doing . . . and if the rain eventually comes as needed, well . . . some of us will have to go.”

Over at a DWP complex on West 2nd Street, in Building D, a team of trouble-shooters entrusted with maintaining the city’s power lines takes an even bleaker view. The storms of recent weeks have meant hazardous 16-hour shifts, working in drenched clothing and suffering a nearly continuous barrage of low-level shocks from soaked power poles.

“We dread the rain,” said Jim Stricklett, a foreman in charge of about 30 power line patrolmen. “Obviously we want the drought to end, but it makes for very arduous conditions.”

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A few miles away in Hollywood, at a DWP facility on Romaine Street, meter readers have their own unique problems whenever they enter homes to read a meter.

“A lot of times when it’s raining, you’ll be going through mud and other stuff . . . and the people will be complaining about you tracking through their house,” said Derwin Davis, a supervisor in the division. “They’re really not very sympathetic.”

Perhaps the biggest concern of DWP officials is that the rain may have complicated their efforts to persuade the public of the need to conserve. Despite heavy precipitation in the Sierra Nevada, the snowpack is 40% below normal--about three times better than last month, but still in the critical range.

“I don’t think the public quite recognized how serious the drought was at the end of February,” said Dennis Williams, the DWP engineer in charge of the Los Angeles aqueduct system. “Now with the change in conditions, they will probably never get to the level of concern that was warranted then.”

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To ensure that the conservation message is not being lost, the department’s advertising agency, Gumpertz/Bentley/Fried, has developed a 30-second insert to be read live by disc jockeys during the regular “Attention, Los Angeles: This is Droughtbuster!” radio spots.

“After five years of below-normal snowfall, a few rainy days in Los Angeles don’t add up to much,” reads the public service announcement. “Of course, getting some rain is better than none, but we can’t afford to use it as an excuse to start wasting water.”

The next phase of the DWP’s ad campaign, however, has been placed on hold while water supplies are reassessed. Before committing the $2.5 million budgeted for advertising between March and September, officials want to first know what their message will be.

“Normally, we would be working on that right now,” said Barry Tuller, manager of public/employee communications. “But right now, we’re sort of up in the air.”

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In the meantime, reporters have been inundating the department’s public affairs division, leaving spokesmen a bit exasperated from having to explain over and over again that there are no plans to end the 10% cuts, which began March 1.

“Some reporters are a little incredulous that the drought’s not over after a few good storms,” said Mindy Berman, a media relations representative. “It takes a little explaining to get the point across.”

This is not the first time that an unexpected downpour has upset the DWP’s drought strategy.

Last year, during the annual excursion in which the agency takes journalists to Mammoth for a look at the low snowpack, they were hit by the only significant storm of 1990. Their small plane was so violently tossed about that several reporters became ill, and chains were required to negotiate the slick mountain roads.

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“It was totally unbelievable,” said Dorothy Jensen, a DWP spokeswoman, who was on the outing. “It was like being on one of those dog sled races in Alaska.”

Last month, when Mayor Tom Bradley made a rare radio address to enlist public support for the new rationing measures, his speech was heard by commuters stuck in traffic, aggravated by one of the biggest rainstorms to hit the region in years.

The next day--the first day of rationing--DWP operators were deluged with thousands of calls from unhappy customers. Their complaints were not about the cutbacks, but about scattered power outages caused by the rain.

“We’ve been busy, I mean busy, " said Joan Mansfield, a senior service representative, who works with 190 other operators behind an electronically locked door on the lobby level of the DWP’s Hope Street building. “From midnight to midnight.”

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Fourteen floors above her, in the forecasting room, engineers are far more exultant. On the wall, they have posted a drawing of a thermometer, coloring it in as the water content of the snowpack steadily increases.

At least a dozen employees have written their names at various stages of the mercury, hoping to correctly guess the 1990-91 water content of the snowpack at Mammoth Pass. It is now at 24 inches, still far below the most optimistic prediction of 82.5 inches, but well above the six-inch level of just three weeks ago.

“My job is a lot busier now,” said Bill Hassencamp, the division’s forecast engineer, who every week calculates the runoff from the snowpack. “But it’s also a lot easier bringing good news to your boss than bad news.”


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