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Water: Getting Serious

December 21, 1987

There are a number of reasons, some of them obviously political, that Mayor Tom Bradley moved when he did to cut water consumption dramatically in the City of Los Angeles. The main expressed purpose of the mayor's program is to reduce pressure on the city's stressed sewage system and to halt sewage spills into Santa Monica Bay. Whatever the motive, the proposals and goals are commendable and warrant serious consideration from the City Council.

Bradley's plan would start with the implementation of Phase One of the city's emergency water conservation ordinance dating from the 1976-77 drought. It would ban the watering of lawns during the hottest parts of the day, prohibit the flushing of driveways with hoses and ask residents to cut back on the use of water by at least 10%. All businesses and residences in the city would be required to have low-flow showerheads and toilet devices.

Beyond these steps, the city would adopt "whatever cost-effective measures are necessary" to achieve a 10% reduction in water use over the next five years. Per-capita consumption now is 178 gallons--not a bad record--but Bradley's announcement noted that Tucson, Ariz., has managed to reduce per-capita consumption from 205 gallons to 150 over an eight-year period. Part of Tucson's success has stemmed from a dramatic increase in water rates--something that Los Angeles should attempt, but an idea that is bound to meet political resistance.

Water conservation would have two major benefits. It would ease pressure from Los Angeles for more water exports from Northern California and/or the Owens Valley. And it would reduce runoff into the sewage system. Outdoor water controls would have no effect on the sewer system, and most home water is consumed in lawn watering and other outside uses. But outdoors is the area where the greatest water savings can be made, so those controls are important just from the conservation standpoint.

A more controversial item is to limit new sewer hookups within the city and in neighboring cities that contract with Los Angeles for sewage disposal. Inflow to the sewage system has been increasing annually by about 10 million gallons, to a current 440 million gallons a day. City engineers have warned that the sewers may fill up by 1991 if the annual flow increases by any more than 7 million gallons a day. Bradley's plan imposes a 7-million-gallon limit allocated this way: 5 million to new development in the city, 1 million for growth in contract cities except for those already pumping their limits, and 1 million for increased density within developed areas. Growth quotas would be set from month to month. The sewage-hookup limits presumably would be in effect until expansion of the Tillman water-reclamation plan in Van Nuys is completed in 1991.

The timing of the mayor's announcement doubtless was dictated in part by criticism from City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, the major potential rival to Bradley in the mayoral election of 1989, and from state Assemblyman Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica) and others. The important point is that the plan recognizes the reality that growth cannot continue without some rational boundaries. Sewage capacity certainly is one finite limit beyond which any city cannot go. And serious water conservation must be pursued by every entity in California.

The mayor's program no doubt will take considerable study and refinement, but the general outline is good and merits the council's support.

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