L.A.’s water savings are just a drop in the bucket

Times Staff Writer

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s call six months ago for voluntary water conservation in a record dry year has failed to persuade Los Angeles residents and businesses to rein in water use substantially, city records show.

Despite the mayor’s June 6 plea for a 10% reduction, water use in the city remained largely flat through October, compared with the same period last year, according to records from the city Department of Water and Power.

Now some environmentalists want the mayor to go further and endorse mandatory restrictions, such as those that have reaped significant water savings this fall in Long Beach. Area environmental leaders who met privately with Villaraigosa on Tuesday said they asked him to declare a state of drought and impose restrictions -- and that he said he would if science supported it.


“More than anything, I want a commitment from the mayor to work toward a more sustainable future and to reduce water use in Los Angeles,” said Miriam Torres of the Environmental Justice Coalition for Water, who was among those at the meeting. “People in Los Angeles have to think of water as a precious resource and not a commodity.”

The mayor’s office confirmed last week that the conversation occurred but did not have details of what kind of scientific evidence the mayor had in mind.

City water officials said Friday that they planned to wait several more months to see if water supplies improve before resorting to harsher measures. Water use since June may be down as much as 3% from a year ago once November reports are counted, but final statistics were not available as of late Friday afternoon, said DWP spokesman Joseph Ramallo.

Cities throughout Southern California are urging conservation this year amid gloomy reports of a long-running drought in the Colorado River Basin and a near-record-low snowpack in the Sierra Nevada. A judge’s August ruling to protect endangered smelt in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could further curtail water deliveries from Northern California

Although rains have dampened the Los Angeles Basin several times in the last two weeks, the rainwater will do little for the many local cities that rely heavily on imported water. Los Angeles, for instance, traditionally pipes most of its water from the Eastern Sierra Nevada.

When Villaraigosa called for a 10% cut, he warned that a confluence of weather events--such as a record-dry year and low snowpack -- threatened the city’s water supply.


“Los Angeles needs to change course and conserve water to steer clear of this perfect storm,” the mayor had told reporters June 6 at the Woodley Lakes Golf Course, which recently became the first city course irrigated with reclaimed, rather than potable, water.

Yet since the mayor’s request, Angelenos appear not to have made dramatic changes in how much they water lawns or how often they wash cars.

City consumers used just shy of 1% more water from June through October than they did in the same period last year, according to DWP data. The increase was slightly larger when measured against the five-year average for the period.

Ramallo credited the mayor with helping reverse the course of water use earlier in the year, pointing to a nearly 21% increase in May from May 2006. “Use was running completely in the wrong direction,” he said. “We’ve arrested a problem.”

David Nahai, the DWP’s new general manager, said he had been told that consumption may be down by 2% to 3% since Villaraigosa’s June call, once November data is added.

“I would, of course, have liked to have seen a higher conservation rate,” Nahai said Friday. But the rate reflects use by all city consumers, including businesses that do not have the flexibility to cut back, he said. He characterized Villaraigosa’s call for a 10% cut as a “conversation” rather than an order.


“What the mayor really did, he had a candid conversation with the people of Los Angeles. He said, ‘I would like you to change your personal behavior in order to change use by 10%,’ ” Nahai said.

Villaraigosa followed up Nov. 13 by resurrecting the Drought Busters program last used during the early 1990s. Six DWP employees are driving around the city in Toyota Prius hybrids, responding to more than 400 complaints about leaking sprinklers, missing sprinkler heads and other water waste.

The next step would be to start enforcing an ordinance passed during the last drought that restricts times for lawn sprinkling and other water uses.

Long Beach, the region’s second largest city, drew statewide attention Sept. 21 when it mandated conservation with such rules as allowing lawn irrigation only three nights a week.

Residents rallied to the cause, and Long Beach consumption has decreased each month since. November water use, for example, was 5% lower than the lowest use for any November in the last 10 years, Water Department Director Kevin Wattier told the City Council last week. September use was also a record low, and October use was the second lowest of the decade for that month.

Long Beach has 473,000 residents, compared with 3.8 million in Los Angeles, according to 2006 census estimates. In Los Angeles, Ramallo said, “it’s much harder to penetrate into people’s consciousness.”


In fact, a 3% drop in Los Angeles water use would dwarf a 10% drop in Long Beach, Nahai said. “Given the sheer size of Los Angeles, even small percentage increments result in very large numbers.”

More than 50 representatives of Green LA, a network of community groups, met with the mayor last week and, among other requests, asked him to declare a drought and take firm action to reduce water use.

“We know historically that voluntary programs don’t work,” said Conner Everts, executive director of the Southern California Watershed Alliance, who attended the meeting. “The next step should be to enforce the water restrictions that are on the books.”

Nahai said he was familiar with the Green LA request to Villaraigosa.

“As I see it, what was being asked of him is a symbolic gesture, an unequivocal statement that we’re facing a water shortage,” Nahai said. He has formed a water shortage team that met for the first time Friday to review plans in case mandatory measures are needed, he said.

Some want the mayor to expand use of recycled water from city treatment plants. Only 1% of the city’s water is reclaimed, compared with 6% in Long Beach.