Penalties target heavy water users in Malibu, Antelope Valley, Topanga

Penalties target heavy water users in Malibu, Antelope Valley, Topanga
In this July 2014 photo, sprinklers water a lawn in Sacramento. (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
Los Angeles County supervisors voted Tuesday to adopt a conservation plan that will penalize heavy water users in the Antelope Valley, Malibu and Topanga areas.

Under the proposal — intended to allow the county to comply with state drought mandates — most commercial water users and multifamily residential units in the Antelope Valley that are served by the county waterworks district will be required to cut back by 32% from their 2013 usage. The plan is set to take effect this month. In the Malibu and Topanga areas, the reductions will be 36%.

For most single-family residential customers, the target figure would be calculated based not on their own usage but by deducting the percentage reduction from the entire area's average usage in 2013. Those who go over the target would eventually face penalty charges that double or triple the cost of water.

That has drawn an outcry from residents with large families or properties, some of whom would be required to cut their use 90%. Antelope Valley residents showed up en masse to protest the plan at a hearing last week and a pair of Malibu City Council members wrote a guest editorial in a local newspaper imploring county officials to not penalize “those customers who have already worked hard to cut back on their water usage.”

In response to the concerns, county supervisors decided that in the first year of the conservation plan, the penalties be reduced: The surcharge would be halved so people who slightly exceed their allotment face a bill 150% higher rather than 200%. However, if they exceed the target by more than 15%, the bill be doubled.

The supervisors also agreed to look at adding more workers to deal with water bill appeals, hold community meetings in the affected areas and consider creating citizen commissions to oversee the county waterworks district.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, whose district includes Malibu, requested the initial reduction to give residents time to adjust.

But she said, “I do very much support the surcharge because it is a way to say to people we're really serious about this. People are in denial about it.”

All surcharge revenue will be placed in a special account to pay for water conservation efforts.

Gary Hildebrand, deputy director of the county's public works department, said the plan was meant to reward people who are already conserving and shift the burden to heavy users.

Hildebrand said households with more than four people or other special circumstances would be able to appeal the charges. More than one-third of customers in the Antelope Valley and nearly half of those in the Malibu district are already using less water than the target figure, water officials said.

Karen Gekelman, who lives in Topanga and will be required to cut her usage by as much as 65% — to 16 units of water in January and February of 2016 from 46 — said she and her husband have already reduced their water use, including watering their lawn only twice a week, limiting the number of times they flush the toilet and not washing her hair every day.

“What do I have to do now? Shower once a week or sponge bathe forever?” Gekelman asked. She noted that as she was driving home from the county meeting, the hillside off the 101 Freeway was being watered in the midday sun.

In Lake Los Angeles, an arid working-class community in the Antelope Valley, Ruth Gonzalez, 51, was distraught about the restrictions even though she's already meeting the new monthly usage target for her area. She said she has stopped watering the plants on her 2 1/2-acre lot. Her fruit trees — peaches, nectarines and cherries — have all dried up. She's cut back on showers and laundry so she can keep giving water to her animals: a horse that belongs to her brother-in-law, three dogs and a cage full of birds.

“I would rather go without than them not have any,” Gonzalez said.

Nearby, 82-year-old Margaret Miller said she had been fined $100 for her water use after putting in her front lawn last year. Now she said she waters her lawn and roses only once a week. The roses have started to bloom, but her front yard is browning. Miller said she's worried about how she will afford the increased water bill if she can't cut back enough, but added that she hopes the drought will end soon.

“Texas had a drought. Now look at it, it's flooding,” she said. “The good Lord didn't say you're going to be dry forever.”

The county is also required to reduce urban water use in Marina del Rey, Kagel Canyon, Val Verde and Acton by 25%. Residents in those areas will be restricted in their outdoor watering, but will not face surcharges for excess use.

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Times staff writer Jean Merl contributed to this report.