DWP’s goodwill diminishing

When Los Angeles residents are asked to conserve water, they conserve. Right away. Consumption in June 2009 hit a 32-year low immediately after the City Council limited sprinkler use to Mondays and Thursdays and restructured rates, keeping them low for basic indoor use but raising them precipitously for wasters.

If only city leaders could keep up. They were months late on the draw Tuesday when they rewrote the sprinkler ordinance — to allow shorter but more frequent sprinkling — and sent it to the Board of Water and Power Commissioners for approval. The board still has not scheduled a meeting to consider it.

The laggardly pace is astonishing in view of an expert panel’s April 13 report that the Monday-Thursday schedule was at least in part the cause of a rash of water main and pipe breaks that plagued the city last summer. The panel found that the restrictions kept pressure in aging iron pipes unusually low on watering days and exceptionally high the rest of the week, and that the fluctuating usage stressed the metal and led the pipes to rupture.

Speculation about the link between conservation and pipe failure began almost a year ago, but all doubts ended when the report was released. Department of Water and Power officials insist that the pressure, so to speak, is off, given the fact that May brought the lowest number of reported leaks in seven years. Meanwhile, though, the two-day water schedule remains law and pipes have continued to burst (and lawns have continued to go brown) because of it. The city is dealing with more than a hundred lawsuits due to damage from last year’s burst pipes. Residents foot the bills not just for the water they consume but also for repairs, replacements and, ultimately, for the city’s payouts, so their goodwill should be recognized by city leaders as a commodity as rare and valuable as their water. Just as they responded quickly to the call to consume less, they expect the council and the DWP to respond quickly when there’s a clear need to change course.

The DWP, especially, will have to rely in coming months on diminishing reserves of goodwill as it seeks more money to replace pipes. Its leaders’ failure to appear before the council Tuesday at a hearing that had been scheduled to discuss its finances — just like their failure to respond quickly to the findings linking the burst pipes to the watering restrictions — suggests that they still believe they have endless supplies of a finite resource.