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Conservation Regulations Fade, So Water Use Flourishes : Resources: Despite a sixth year of drought, residents are using more water, in part because they don't face the threat of fines for being wasteful.


LONG BEACH AREA — Area residents are taking longer showers, watering their lawns more and generally conserving less than they did last summer, largely because water gluttons no longer face fines, officials said.

Areawide water conservation was about 9% during May and June, according to a new report from the Central Basin Municipal Water District.

That is down from a conservation level of more than 15% during the same period last year, when mandatory programs were in force. The percentages reflect comparisons to a base year--July, 1989, to June, 1990--when there was little water conservation.

"If you're a homeowner and the city tells you you're no longer going to be penalized for overuse of water, that takes away an incentive to conserve," said Virginia Grebbien, assistant general manager of the Central Basin district. "People tend to backslide a bit."

In addition, this summer is a little hotter than last, which makes conservation more difficult, Grebbien said.

Local water officials say they are not worried yet and have no plans to reinstate mandatory conservation programs. But they say it is important to conserve as much water as possible because the state is in its sixth year of drought.

While Southern California had plenty of rain this year, key areas in Northern California did not receive normal amounts of rain and snowfall. The amount of water in the state's reservoirs is 58% of normal, said Doug Priest, manager of the state's Drought Center.

The first mandatory programs, which took effect in March, 1991, required residents and businesses to reduce water use and to stop such wasteful practices as hosing off driveways.

By June, 1991, municipal and independent water systems supplying at least 20 cities in the area had imposed mandatory water conservation measures that hit violators with surcharges and penalties.

The Long Beach Water Department, for example, collected $4.1 million in surcharges from customers who used too much water during its yearlong mandatory program, General Manager Dan Davis said.

The city also issued about 800 notices, which carry a $25 fee, to people who engaged in wasteful practices. The money from the surcharges and fees helped offset more than $5 million in lost revenue because of reduced water sales, Davis said.

When conservation was mandatory, several water systems reported that their customers cut water use more than 25%.

The mandatory conservation programs were tied to actions by the giant Metropolitan Water District, which supplies imported water to Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties.

Most local water agencies buy from the MWD to supplement the water they pump from the ground. The MWD imposed water rationing on water companies and municipal water systems in 1991 because of the drought.

The MWD lifted the restrictions in April after determining that the year's rains and successful conservation programs left the area with sufficient reserves to make it through the year.

Citing good conservation, Long Beach, Compton and Lakewood had already phased out their mandatory programs. The rest of the area's municipal water systems and independent water companies with mandatory programs followed the MWD action.

Lakewood was the first area city to drop mandatory conservation. Lakewood water department customers had cut their water use by more than 20% in some months, including 23.8% in June, 1991. The conservation level dropped to 6.5% this past June, according to the Central Basin District report.

"We're still fairly happy," said Jim Glancy, the city's water superintendent. "When we compare voluntary to mandatory, we expect to see an increase. But we're still below the base year."

The situation was much the same in Long Beach, where water conservation fell from 18.9% in June, 1991, to 8.7% in June this year.

"To get through the remainder of this year, I think we're at about the appropriate level," said Davis, the water department manager.

But the end of mandatory programs has not meant an increase in water use for everyone.

Santa Fe Springs dropped its mandatory conservation program last May but still saved 14.4% in June, 1992, compared to 6.8% in June, 1991.

Public Works Director John Price said the impact of the recession on the largely industrial city probably accounts for most of the difference. Manufacturers use less water when they cut production.

"I'm sure the recession has an impact on water consumption," he said.

A handful of water systems used more water in June than they did during June of the base year before water conservation was stressed.

Norwalk's municipal water system, which serves about one-tenth of the city, used 30.3% more water. It was a turnaround from the month before, when the city's customers used 8.4% less than the base year. Norwalk never had a mandatory conservation program.

"We're not sure why the figures went up," Assistant City Manager Sanford M. Groves said.

Groves said the city will probably send letters to its customers reminding them to conserve if the high water use continues.

Long Beach and other local water officials said they are planning mailings and meetings with local groups to push continued conservation.

"We need to step up our information program to get conservation back up," said Grebbien of the Central Basin District. "The drought is not over."

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