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Conservation Hasn't Easily Taken Root in 'Garden Spot of the World' : Drought: Although the city is using less water, it has been fined by the MWD for not meeting a savings target of 20%.

February 27, 1992|JEFF KRAMER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEVERLY HILLS — Driving through Beverly Hills and sweeping past acre after acre of lovingly tended greenery might inspire some to ask the question: "What drought?"

In the heat of midday, a groundskeeper idly bounces dead leaves off a sidewalk, using a powerful stream of water from a garden hose.

At another residence, groundskeepers hose down a small patch of grass--seemingly oblivious to the sprinklers simultaneously soaking the same area.

And in front of the Beverly Hills courthouse, lunchtime brings a chance for golfers to practice their putting game on the verdant median of Burton Way.

In the middle of a drought officials say persists despite all the recent rain, Beverly Hills seems in no danger of surrendering its treasured distinction as "Garden Spot of the World."

Yet, behind the leafy landscapes, the stern realities of California water politics are hitting home. Just like less luminous communities, Beverly Hills has had to find ways to use a lot less water. But the idea doesn't appear to have taken root easily in the city defined by wealth, extravagance and a love of the color green.

The Metropolitan Water District, the mammoth water wholesaler that sells water to 27 agencies from Oxnard to the Mexican border, supplies Beverly Hills with all of its water. The MWD reports that, although the city is using 16% to 17% less than it did in 1989, it has not met the systemwide savings target of 20%.

As a result, Beverly Hills last year was fined $129,906 between February and November for using too much water.

"They are the only agency that exceeded their targeted allocation," MWD spokesman Lee Gottlieb said.

Beverly Hills residents individually don't fare much better. Each residential user there consumes 285 gallons per day on average, compared to the MWD average of 130 to 140 gallons a day.

But some people argue that Beverly Hills faces obstacles to conservation that other agencies lack.

The city's 32,000 population swells fivefold during the day, with non-resident employees and tourists who are often indifferent to local water conservation efforts.

Hotels, beauty shops and restaurants, which are found everywhere in Beverly Hills, guzzle huge quantities of water.

Then there are those multi-acre residential lawns and landscapes--investments of tens of thousands of dollars that can become fire hazards if allowed to dry out.

According to city records, for example, the fifth biggest residential water customer during an eight-week period last Fall, Mac Lin Wade of Karla Ridge, consumed 7,233 gallons per day, which works out o 2,411 gallons per person in the three-member household.

Wade, a Beverly Hills gynecologist, said he lives on 4.5 acres, and has installed automatic sprinklers to cut water use.

Even so, he said, he recently paid a $4,000 water bill.

Mayor Vicki Reynolds argues that most residential users have "risen to the occasion" with regard to water conservation.

Jay Malinowsky of the MWD agrees. "Given the size of the lots and the look of the city, they're not doing that bad a job."

But landscape experts say conservation could be improved significantly through better water management: grouping plants according to water consumption, using timed sprinklers, restricting watering to early morning and evening hours and educating gardeners, many of whom don't speak English and may not be especially concerned about saving someone else's water.

Last year, in an attempt to force reductions in water use, the city adopted a Draconian penalty schedule imposing severe fines against customers who use more than 80% of their 1989 allotment. Abusers are charged as much as $7.50 for every unit of 748 gallons they use in excess of their allotment--compared with a standard rate of $1.70 per unit.

For those who still don't get the hint, the city's proposed Water Shortage Contingency Plan threatens jail terms for violating use restrictions during a declared water emergency.

City officials stress that most residents are working hard to conserve but concede that there will always be a handful who won't be bothered, even if they have to pay a stiff fine.

"There are people in the world that don't understand anything but force," City Councilman Maxwell Salter said at a recent council meeting, explaining the need for jail terms.

For most, however, the cost is daunting enough; literally thousands of residents have flooded City Hall with complaints and inquiries about their water bills in recent months.

Alan Smalley, a Beverly Hills resident who lives on a three-quarter-acre parcel, says he is paying about $500 a month for water, compared to about half that in past years for what he said was the same amount or less water. He unsuccessfully appealed the charges to the city Water Appeal Board. Smalley blames rate increases on high MWD salaries and other alleged financial excesses.

"I think they're the one's we should be going after," he said.

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