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Palm Springs sues water agency in dispute over meters

Devices intended to prevent theft on unmonitored lines could impair sprinklers by lowering pressure, fire officials say.

July 27, 2007|Jonathan Abrams | Times Staff Writer

What started as an attempt to thwart water thieves in Palm Springs has ballooned into a lawsuit that has stalled development and could affect how water meters are used statewide.

According to the Palm Springs Fire Department, the proposed new water meters could be a safety risk if they malfunctioned in an emergency.

According to the Desert Water Agency, which serves the city, the gauges, by preventing people from stealing water from unmetered lines, will keep costs down for customers.

"They decided the Fire Department doesn't have any jurisdiction," Palm Springs Fire Chief Blake Goetz said of the water agency. "Our position is we do, because we are trying to protect the public's safety. I expected us to have an amicable working relationship, but they've put their foot down and refused to negotiate."

In January, the agency began rejecting building proposals approved by the Fire Department that called for separate lines for domestic use, such as sinks and water used for fire sprinklers. The agency instead backed meters that used the same line and could monitor the systems.

Goetz said he had enlisted the aid of California State Fire Marshal Kate Dargan for her interpretation of the rule and was awaiting a response. State law requires that all water service be metered. At issue is what meter to use.

Palm Springs sued after months of quarreling, alleging that the water agency was approving only a type of meter that could restrict water pressure in a fire. The lawsuit filed in Riverside County Superior Court charges that if fire sprinklers do not get enough water pressure they could malfunction.

The city fears that it could be liable for deaths and damages caused by malfunctioning sprinklers.

"The whole purpose of this for the city is to avoid potential liability," said M. Lois Bobak, an attorney representing the city. "We want to prevent the fire from happening in the first place, and that's what residential fire sprinklers should do."

Goetz agreed. "It worries me quite a bit when I'm charged with protecting safety, and putting in a machine that could render water meters useless isn't exactly doing my job," he said.

The water agency has never had a problem with the meters and the city is overstepping its legal authority, Desert Water Agency General Manager Dave Luker said.

"The city's decision to file litigation was unnecessary and imprudent," he said. "However, now that the city has elected to do so, the agency further believes that it is inappropriate and unfair to the taxpayer to also try the case in the court of public opinion."

The water agency's attorney, Michael Riddell, said that outcome could affect water agencies across California by limiting their ability to solicit competitive bids from various meter manufacturers.

"If the city's position is true, it would provide one water meter service for every water purveyor in the state" and increase costs, he said. "The agency has been using these meters for a long time. It has never had a problem delivering the water necessary for firefighting anywhere in Palm Springs."

The case is to be transferred to Los Angeles County Superior Court because of Riverside County's backload of cases, Bobak said.

At least six development projects in Palm Springs are on hold because of the impasse, said Fred Bell, executive director of the Desert Chapter of the Building Industry Assn.

"This is pretty serious," Bell said. "It couldn't have come at a worse time when Palm Springs is trying to enjoy a renaissance in its downtown."

Developer Wallace "Wally" Hrdlicka said both sides needed to come to an agreement as soon as possible. He has 12 residential and two commercial units in limbo.

"It's kind of like bureaucratic baseball -- one throws the pitch to the other one, and then the other wants to see how fast he can throw it back," said Hrdlicka, president of Desert Design Builders. "I'm anticipating it's going to get worse before it gets better. They seem like they are hopelessly deadlocked."

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