After a dry spell, Drought Busters program is back

Times Staff Writer

The official headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sits atop Bunker Hill. The big black building is distinguishable because it usually is lit all night long and is surrounded by what looks like a moat.

Not even City Hall has gone that medieval yet.

Last week, city leaders gathered at the DWP to announce the revival of the Drought Busters program, which last was used during the severe drought in the early 1990s.

The name is a bit of a misnomer. The Drought Busters -- six full-time DWP employees -- do not actually have the ability to change the weather. They do, however, get to drive around town in hybrid cars and tell people to stop wasting water.


Officials at the news conference -- including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa -- took pains to say that mandatory water restrictions still are not in effect. They also passed out a list of water uses prohibited by law in L.A., but noted that the law currently isn’t being enforced.

For example, it is supposedly illegal to water your lawn this time of year from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. because it’s wasteful due to evaporation. But no one, including the Drought Busters, is going to write you a ticket. Instead, the busters will politely insist that you stop.

City Council President Eric Garcetti threw down the gauntlet and said he’s no longer shaving in the shower. When drought plagued Seattle a few years ago, the mayor there took to the airwaves and told citizens to partner up in the shower.

Why won’t Los Angeles once and for all tell residents they can’t waste water?


“We’re already conserving in this town better than most big cities in America,” Villaraigosa said. “We’re doing the smart things you have to do to reduce water usage.”

The city’s water conservation law was passed in 1990 during a drought, and it’s still on the books. The law also allows the DWP to phase in other restrictions during a water emergency.

For example, the first new restriction would be that customers could use only 90% of the water they normally use during a billing period. Residents who don’t abide would get a warning for the first offense, a $50 surcharge for the second and $150 for the third. A fourth offense would allow the DWP to put a device on the pipes coming into the customer’s house to restrict water flow. Fun stuff.

Will any of this really happen?


It depends on whether it’s a snowy winter across the West. In all likelihood, only an epic dry winter would trigger restrictions.

It certainly has been dry thus far. Snowfall in the Sierra has been light, and two major ski resorts in the Rockies announced last week that they had to postpone opening for a few days because of warm weather.

While waiting on the weather, officials in L.A. will keep pushing for more education of the populace and more technologies, such as waterless urinals. That’s the smart thing to do.

The question that gnaws at us is whether any of this is really enough. The DWP has some slight water rate hikes in the works. But the city’s water supply isn’t increasing while its population is, and, at some point, something has to give.


Why should members of the tony Jonathan Club watch out for DWP Commission President Nick Patsaouras?

Patsaouras has said twice in recent weeks that he’s growing mighty annoyed at seeing fellow members let the water run while they shave and talk football in the club’s locker room.

“I haven’t said anything yet,” Patsaouras said, and it’s worth noting that “mild-mannered” is not what comes to mind when thinking of Patsaouras.

In other news, what might interest opponents of the proposed Home Depot store in Sunland-Tujunga?


Peter Gutierrez, a city attorney who represented Los Angeles on the issue, earlier this month went to work for Latham & Watkins, the law firm representing Home Depot.

Gutierrez was the city’s top lawyer for land-use issues. He supervised 40 city lawyers and advised council members earlier this year to force Home Depot to go through a more expensive environmental review.

Two months after the vote, Home Depot -- with Latham acting as its lawyer -- filed a lawsuit over the council’s decision. So now, the city won’t have Gutierrez to rely on for expertise.

Is there a way to find out whether an elected official in the city who says he or she is rejecting a pay raise really does, in fact, reject a pay raise?


Yes. The news came last week that all 18 elected officials in the city were getting 4.16% raises, which would elevate council salaries to $178,789. Citing the city’s wobbly finances, six elected officials said they would reject the raise, which comes automatically when Superior Court judges get a pay boost.

Each official who wants to abstain from the pay hike must send City Controller Laura Chick a written request to turn down the raise. Such requests are public records and can be examined in the coming days or weeks.


Submit a public records request to the controller. It’s easy -- you can find a sample letter by the California First Amendment Coalition at


As for elected officials, they’ve now received raises totaling about 25% during the last 2 1/2 years. The city doesn’t announce the raises -- the only way they’re publicized is when a resident or reporter asks about them. That’s not exactly a model of transparency.

How many billboards are there on Huntington Drive in L.A.?

If driving east through El Sereno, we counted 19 in a 1.9-mile stretch. Many loom directly over homes adjacent to Huntington.

For reasons that remain unclear, a certain reporter has found counting billboards a soothing way to pass time while sitting in traffic. Until 1986, the city pretty much allowed billboards to be put anywhere in commercially zoned areas, the reason some streets look like a highway in, say, Georgia.


It’s also worth mentioning that the billboard inventory that the city said it would assemble last year still isn’t done. Next year, say officials at the Building and Safety Department.

Who will soon hold a big meeting of the city’s general managers?

Garcetti, the council president, has invited the agency chiefs to a Nov. 29 meeting in the big room atop the City Hall tower. It’s an unusual move.

Villaraigosa heard about it and, at a recent meeting with the chiefs, told them he doesn’t mind. He also reminded them, as he often does, that according to the City Charter, they report to him.


And, finally, where’s a good place to scream about traffic?

A dozen elected leaders from around the region will hold a Westside subway and transit summit today at 3 p.m. at the Petersen Automotive Museum, 6060 Wilshire Blvd. (Seating is very limited.) The list includes council members from Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Beverly Hills, as well as five state legislators.

Radio commentator Kitty Felde is the moderator, and it will be fun to see whether there’s any agreement among the politicians over the issue of Westside rail. We suggest that Felde ask the pols if any of them has a plan -- not a passing thought or another traffic-is-bad metaphor -- for how to pay for the “subway to the sea.”

Next week: Reader mail.


Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.