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Creative Appeals for More Water Deluge the DWP : Drought: Tens of thousands of residents and businesses have won battles against conservation fines.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Renee Aaronson was a self-described spinster in 1986, but today she is happily married--and in desperate need of water.

“Someone asked me to marry him, so without thinking of the terrible water problems we in California are having . . . I said yes,” the 62-year-old woman wrote the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, requesting permission to use more water. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think that the time would come when I might have to choose between my husband (and he is a doll!!!) and the DWP.”

Aaronson is among the tens of thousands of Los Angeles residents and businesses that have successfully petitioned the DWP for additional water since mandatory rationing began last spring. The requests have become more urgent--and, in some cases, more creative--since the DWP started penalizing water guzzlers this summer.

Water-thirsty residents send everything from wedding invitations to doctor’s excuses to squeeze a few extra gallons out of the mammoth water agency. An anguished Mar Vista woman sent her request on a photocopied label of a Mylanta-II antacid bottle; an Encino couple sent a 14-page explanation of their water woes, including a two-page summary with yellow highlights.

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More than 44,000 of the department’s 650,000 customers have asked to be exempted from the fines, and thousands of additional requests arrive each week, officials said. So far, all but 141 requests have been granted at least in part, and only 64 customers have challenged a DWP ruling against them.

Since July, the water agency has imposed fines ranging from a few dollars to several thousand dollars on customers who have not cut water consumption 15% from 1986 levels. The penalties total between $6 million and $10 million, according to recent DWP estimates, and a computer readout of the fines reaches more than 12 feet high.

Nonetheless, the financially strapped DWP has collected no more than $2 million--and perhaps as little as $840,000--of the fines because of the thousands of appeals and advance requests for exemptions, officials said. Exact statistics are not yet available, but the estimates were based on a sampling of customer billings in July and August, the officials said.

“We’ve been trying to work with the customers as much as possible,” said Tom Jamentz, who heads a team of 25 employees who handle the influx of requests. “We’ve been successful in granting appeals to just about everyone who has appealed. They may not get exactly as much (water) as they requested, but we are able to give them something.”

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James M. Derry, DWP customer services director, said the fines are intended to encourage conservation, not raise revenue for the department. In fact, the DWP is expecting a $70-million shortfall, in part because the program has been so successful: Customers are conserving 30% citywide.

“The citizens are doing an outstanding job,” Derry said. “It is more than anybody imagined.”

Under the city conservation ordinance, customers are fined $3 per billing unit (748 gallons) of excess water use, plus 15% of the total water bill. A second violation costs $3 per billing unit, plus 25% of the total bill. Subsequent violations cost $4 per billing unit, plus 75% of the total bill.

Some of the fines levied over the past two months have been routinely canceled because they were billed by mistake or calculated using wrong information. A fabric-dying company on Figueroa Street, for example, had two $9,000 fines canceled because the penalties were based on an antiquated water meter that was barely functioning in 1986.

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The vast majority of penalties, however, are mulled over by Jamentz’s water conservation team, which works out of an aging brick building at the edge of downtown’s garment district. The workers, some of them retired DWP employees temporarily called back to service, handle about 600 telephone calls a day in addition to processing dozens of appeals.

“There is no set formula for doing it,” said Jamentz. “We look at each request individually. For the most part, I don’t think people are trying to get away with anything. A lot of things have changed over the years to make these appeals necessary.”

Not that everyone has had his appeal approved.

The conservation team ruled against a Van Nuys man this week who claimed his house was empty, yet offered no explanation for continued--and increasing--water usage there. They also held for further review a request from the owner of a Highland Park Laundromat who made contradictory claims about his water needs.

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Many of those who successfully appealed their fines went to great lengths to state their cases.

One Encino customer sent photographs of her family skiing in Northern California to demonstrate her knowledge of the dwindling Sierra snowpack and the need for water conservation. Her 36-page appeal also included a photo of “bone growth” on her foot to explain excessive use of the family Jacuzzi and a lengthy discussion of her increased water needs during a cockroach infestation.

A Canoga Park woman also sent photographs. The pictures of her sun-scorched back yard were accompanied by a copy of a landscaping bill from 1988 for nearly $15,000.

“I’m tired of dipping and saving water out of my washer to flush one toilet twice a day,” she said in a desperate plea for more water. “I’m tired of my bathroom smelling like a campground pit toilet.”

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A Hancock Park woman sent a note from a policeman to verify her claim that she used her sprinklers to scare away people parked outside her home. The woman said in an attached letter that she he had seen “a misdemeanor-lewd act being performed” in the car and saw no other solution.

An elderly Reseda man, meanwhile, complained that he can take only one shower a month because of the water cuts. The man wrote several messages to the DWP in large block letters, including: “California: Home of the Unwashed” and “Tourists: Bring Your Own Water.”

A Van Nuys man asked for more water to spray his rabbits, chickens, cats, dogs, pigeons, doves, parakeets, cockatiels and pheasants “so they won’t die” during the hot summer months. Other animal lovers listed pets as occupants of their homes and requested extra water to bathe and feed them.

A Sherman Oaks man, declaring the mandatory rationing as unconstitutional, sent an angry hand-scrawled diatribe threatening to “notify President Bush” if his water flow was disrupted. A Harbor Gateway man complained the conservation effort was rooted in communism, which, he lectured, has become obsolete.

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The appeals are as diverse and incongruous as the city itself.

An elderly Van Nuys couple asked for extra water because they bought a washing machine three years ago. “We sponge ourselves around every day in the bathroom sink,” said the wife. “We cannot save any more water.”

In the Hollywood Hills, Robert Crane sent the DWP a color-coded map itemizing his vast land ownings, as well as an aerial view of his “Dream Castle” home on the reservoir.

“The automatically watered areas have been increased by almost 100% since 1986,” Crane wrote. “In 1989, I acquired 12 additional lots on my ridge above Lake Hollywood for fire protections.”

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Actress Rue McClanahan filed an appeal for more water, noting that she has added a hot tub and a rebuilt swimming pool since 1986 and has spent more than $300,000 landscaping her three-acre Encino property. “We have lost our entire corn crop for lack of water, as well as the lilies and much other growth,” she scrawled on the back of her appeal. “Much of the lawn is yellow, on its way to brown.”

In a largely sentimental request, Agnes Klauser, 80, asked for enough water to keep alive several plants at her Hollywood apartment building that she has been watering for a half century. “My folks built this place and my stepfather was landscape gardener for United Artists Studio and the home of Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks’ home,” Klauser wrote. “I still have some old hedges about 60 years old.”

Meanwhile, Albert Meyer, 92, and his wife, Helen, 83, of San Pedro cut back on their baths to save water for a garden of green beans, corn, potatoes and rhubarb. But it wasn’t enough. “Their vegetable garden and their flowers are the two most important things in their lives,” their son wrote in a plea for extra water.

An appeal from a Woodland Hills psychiatrist had become a favorite among the water conservation staff. David Mills, who handled the request, has posted it in the office--along with Renee Aaronson’s request-- under the sign: “The best reason to appeal.”

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The psychiatrist got married a few years ago, but only after making several promises to his bride-to-be. He agreed to install a swimming pool, plant new landscaping, remodel his home and add a bedroom and bathroom.

“I got a nice house, beautiful yard, and a lovely wife,” he wrote, requesting permission to use more water. “Help me keep them all.”

His request was granted.

Watching Your Water

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In May, the Department of Water and Power began an ambitious program to force Los Angeles water users to cut water consumption by 15% from 1986 levels. Since then, an estimated 44,000 customers have appealed their allotments; all but 141 have gotten adjustments.

To appeal, residential customers need to demonstrate to the DWP a good reason for exceeding their limit. Here is a look at some of the criteria used by the DWP , along with a list of the penalties.

PENALTIES

Before penalties for exceeding allotments are levied, warnings are issued allowing residential customers time to cut back their water use or appeal their allotment. Customers can also bank saved water from the previous or succeeding billing periods in order to avoid a penalty .

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1st citation $3 for every unit above the allotment plus 15% of bill

2nd citation $3 for every unit above the allotment plus 25% of bill

3rd citation $4 for every unit above the allotment plus 75% of bill

Other DWP may install flow-restricting devices or terminate service.

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APPEALS

Residential customers may appeal their water allotment and receive an adjustment if they can show that since 1986 they:

Have more people living at the residence.

Added landscaped property.

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Added water-using appliances, such as a water purification system.

Constructed a swimming pool or hot tub.

Added water-using health or life-support equipment.

Retired (and thus stay at home for greater periods).

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Acquired livestock such as horses.

Became a stay-at-home parent or care-giver.

Customers may also receive adjustments if they can show that they were absent or on vacation during a significant portion of 1986. Temporary adjustments may be granted for weddings, guests, water use for eliminating a health or safety hazard or for repairing a swimming pool.

FURTHER APPEALS

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Consumers who have had their appeal denied or are unhappy with their adjustment can appeal further by going before a DWP administrative hearing.

Failing that, they may go to the Mayor’s Conservation Appeals Board.

INFORMATION

For more information or to get adjustment forms:

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Call (800) DIAL-DWP or (800) 439-7728

Or write: Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles, Water Conservation Group, P.O. Box 111, Los Angeles, CA 90051

SOURCE: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power

Compiled by Times researcher Michael Meyers

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