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Unlike its neighbor, L.A. goes with the flow

As Long Beach enacts restrictions on water use in advance of a potential crisis, the DWP takes a wait-and-see approach.

September 24, 2007|Steve Hymon | Times Staff Writer

Long Beach has a population of almost half a million, making it the second largest city in the county of Los Angeles and the fifth most populous in the state.

As you may have read, water officials there recently looked at the prospect of tightening water supplies and decided the outlook was bleak enough to impose restrictions.

The new rules are hardly draconian, but they do have some bite. Lawn watering is now allowed only three days per week, the time that sprinkler systems are allowed to run has been limited and daytime watering has been prohibited.

Long Beach's decision is intriguing, in part, because the largest city in the county, Los Angeles, has not imposed such rules. Instead, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa asked residents this summer to voluntarily cut their usage by 10%.

Long Beach residents already use less water on average than L.A. residents -- 121 gallons per day versus 141 in 2006. Which leads to the question. . .

Is Long Beach jumping the gun, or is Los Angeles sticking its head in the sand?

This is hard to say without the ability to predict the weather. In the winter of 2004-05, for example, the city of Los Angeles had its second-wettest year on record. Last winter was its driest. This year: Who knows? Despite the rainy weekend, forecasters are saying it could be a drier-than-normal year in the Southwest.

In Long Beach, officials insist they're simply trying to prepare residents for a time when water resources grow more scarce and thus more expensive. Besides the ongoing drought, they also point to projections of a diminishing snowpack in California and the West, courtesy of global warming.

There is also the prospect that the amount of water pumped into the California Aqueduct from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta could be curtailed to protect the endangered delta smelt.

"We are preparing our customers for a water supply emergency," said Ryan Alsop, spokesman for the Long Beach Water Department. "It may happen, it may not happen. But we think it's likely, and we wanted our community to be the absolute best-prepared community in Southern California to deal with it."

Alsop added, "We should be doing these things year-round. Water is a finite resource as it is. . . . We're owning up to the fact that we're wasting water."

Although the city can issue citations to violators, it is not planning to do that, nor is it known if the new rules will become permanent. Alsop said the goal, for now, is to educate residents. He also said he doesn't believe the watering restrictions will send anyone's landscaping off to the gallows.

The city is encouraging residents to report those who are wasting water. The Long Beach Water Department has even produced two YouTube videos. One of them shows a man leisurely hosing down a sidewalk -- a no-no under the new water restrictions -- and provides a phone number ([562] 570-2455) residents can call to rat each other out. A complete list of restrictions is at

And what are Los Angeles officials saying?

"I think there are a number of factors on the horizon and they will come to a head very quickly," said David Nahai, president of the Department of Water and Power board. "At that point we'll be able to make a decision. If all of a sudden we get mounds of snow in the Sierra or we get a great deal of rainfall, imposing an additional, onerous burden will be uncalled for.

"And what will we do next time? Will we be taken seriously?"

Nahai said he believes the call for voluntary conservation in L.A. is analogous to what Long Beach is doing, since Long Beach is not fining violators. Nahai said too that the supply situation is different for Los Angeles.

Both cities rely on groundwater wells and water purchased from the Metropolitan Water District, which imports water from Northern California and the Colorado River. But Los Angeles also owns a pair of aqueducts to import water from the Eastern Sierra.

Most provocatively, Nahai said that he's open in the future to using higher water rates as a way to "encourage" people to stop wasting water. That's not something you hear often from high-ranking water officials.

As for imposing restrictions, he said that is something the DWP board would do only after consulting with the mayor, who appoints its members.

Attentive readers may recall that when The Times earlier this summer asked Villaraigosa about his big water bills at his Mount Washington home in 2006, the mayor invoked the Caddyshack Doctrine and said that gophers chewed into the sprinkler system and caused leaks.

How bad is the water situation at the moment?

Generally speaking, many of the largest reservoirs in the state are at levels below where they usually are at the end of summer.

Let's take a look at some numbers: Lake Shasta in Northern California, the state's largest reservoir, was only 43% filled as of Wednesday -- about 72% of its average capacity this time of year.

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