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Water Rate Hike Request Unleashes Flood of Complaints

September 29, 1985|GAIL POLEVOI | Times Staff Writer

When Jane Hall of Windsor Hills raised the lid of her washing machine recently, it was filled with black water. Her 20 pairs of newly purchased bobby socks were badly stained.

Hall's discolored socks were admitted as evidence last week at a Public Utilities Commission hearing in Inglewood, where customers of California-American Water Co. protested a bid to increase water rates almost 28% during the next three years.

If the commission approves the utility's request, a typical customer in Cal-Am's Baldwin Hills district would pay a monthly water bill of $27.16 in 1986, up $4.09 from the current year. The bill would jump to $28.67 in 1987, and to $29.48 the following year.

Judge Hears Complaints

Residents of the district, which includes 6,000 households in Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, Windsor Hills, View Park and a small section of Inglewood, complained to commission Judge Michael Galvin of poor water quality, uneven pressure and seemingly ever-rising rates.

Ola Griffith of View Park presented Galvin with a petition, signed by 50 of her neighbors, protesting the rate increase. She also gave him a small bottle of rust-colored water.

"I collected the water so you could see the sediment," she told the judge. "We have to use bottled water at all times. Could you possibly cook with this?"

In addition, Griffith said, the water supply is unreliable--sometimes gushing out with great force, sometimes slowed to a trickle. "Once, when I was having a church affair at my home, there was no water at all when we went to do the dishes," she said.

'Gushes Like a Geyser'

Griffith's neighbor, Jane Toland, said that "sometimes water doesn't come, period." At other times, it comes with enough force to flood her bathroom, she said.

"When you flush the toilet, water gushes in like a geyser," Toland said. "You hear a knocking sound and water comes out of the top of the tank and floods the floor."

Jane Hall, who said she had called Cal-Am repeatedly about dirty water and low pressure, said the company blamed the problems on tests by the Los Angeles County Fire Department that caused changes in water pressure and loosened sediment from pipes.

But Cal-Am's director of water quality, Ernie Wake, said in an interview that the problems of discolored water and uneven pressure had been traced to a faulty tank. A switch on the tank that provides water to Baldwin Hills residents broke, Wake said, allowing air to enter the tank and the water main.

Air in the main acts "like a big bubble," he said. "When the air rushes out, water jumps inside the pipes." The force of the water knocks deposits off the pipes, exposing oxidized metal that can give water a funny taste and smell, Wake said. "It's not a health hazard. It's just a problem of aesthetics."

Tank to be Overhauled

The faulty switch was repaired, Wake said, and an overhaul of the tank will be completed within two months. But he cautioned that the problems could recur.

"If you have an automatic switch, it will fail sooner or later," he said.

An elevated water tank, rather than one that operates under air pressure, would be more reliable, he said, "but people in the neighborhood don't want an elevated tank."

Revenues from the proposed rate increases will be used to replace old equipment and to drill new wells, said David Modeer, Cal-Am's vice president of operations.

Modeer said the commission probably will not approve the full 28% increase. The proposal "will probably be scaled down because the rate of inflation has dropped" since the request was made, he said. "But we wouldn't ask for it if we didn't need it."

Last Hike Was 30%

Under commission regulations, Cal-Am may request a general rate increase every three years. In 1982, the commission approved an increase of almost 30% for 1983 through 1985.

Cal-Am also may pass along "offset increases" when its own costs, such as the price of electricity, go up. Since 1980, customers have been hit with six "offset" rate increases--most recently, a 3.73% boost that took effect Aug. 21.

The increases currently sought by Cal-Am will be further reviewed at commission hearings in San Francisco Oct. 15 to 18, after which Judge Galvin will render a decision.

In the meantime, Jane Hall is awaiting a check from Cal-American. The company promised to reimburse her for her socks.

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