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'Drought buster' law hasn't soaked in

Employees hose down tennis courts despite conservation rules. L.A. parks officials say the measure is vague.

September 04, 2008|Rich Connell | Times Staff Writer

Two weeks after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pointedly reminded all city agencies that they must toe the line on new water conservation measures, workers in Griffith Park were following an old routine: using an industrial-grade hose and countless gallons of water to wash down a row of public tennis courts.

As one man sloshed a layer of dirt forward, another squeegeed the excess water onto a walkway, then along a gutter to a ditch, where it spilled across a parking lot.

Officials couldn't say whether the water use on display last week at a picturesque Vermont Canyon complex has been common elsewhere in the city's network of 287 tennis courts.

"We are trying very hard to make sure it's not happening elsewhere," said Jane Kolb, a Department of Recreation and Parks spokeswoman.

But the scene highlighted the challenges that one of the city's largest agencies faces getting legions of frontline workers to drop habits that now can bring their departments citations and fines, just as they would for homeowners and businesses banned from hosing down dusty driveways.

Watching last week's cleaning ritual at Vermont Canyon was David Campbell, a retired resource economist and one of the regulars at the courts who said players had complained repeatedly about the wash-downs, which last hours and involve several courts at a time, every other week.

"It sets a bad example when the city is so flagrantly extravagant with water at the same time there are ads in the paper saying, 'Save. Don't Water,' " Campbell said.

Hosing off tennis courts is not allowed, and the procedures at Vermont Canyon have been changed, a parks department official told The Times when a reporter said the cleaning had been recorded on videotape. Times videos two weeks ago also showed water being sprayed on an asphalt driveway and sidewalks at other city locations during hours when residents doing the same thing could have faced fines.

Still, conflicting responses to the inquiries and differing interpretations of how Los Angeles' new "drought buster" law applies to city parks suggest that the City Hall bureaucracy -- like residents -- is still trying to fully understand and adapt to the mayor's ambitious water conservation plan.

Kolb placed the blame for the improper court washing on the workers.

"We had a couple of gardeners who weren't following directions," she said. "They were violating our rules."

She said workers had been trained in water conservation procedures beginning in November and "they should have known."

That explanation drew a rebuff from an employees union official, who said it was cowardly of the department to blame workers. Julie Butcher, regional director of the union representing city park employees, said the department had acknowledged, at least internally, that the maintenance workers were not told to alter their cleaning routine until after a reporter showed up at the Vermont Canyon park with a video camera.

"They didn't know anything had changed. . . . There was clearly a miscommunication, or no communication, about the changed policy, the new law," she said.

Kolb said that if workers cannot simply blow off the courts or sweep them, they will use a water broom -- a device like a push broom that attaches to a hose and sprays a high-pressure mist that uses one-sixth to one-eighth the water of a regular hosing.

The tennis court wash-downs had continued for more than a year after the mayor began calling on the public to curtail water usage because of persistent drought conditions. Stepping up that campaign, Villaraigosa signed an ordinance Aug. 14 that doubles penalties for residents and businesses that hose down sidewalks and other hard surfaces, or water landscaping between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Enforcement of the new law is scheduled to begin this month.

On the day the law was signed, The Times posted a website video showing facilities managed by Recreation and Parks and the Department of Water and Power soaking sidewalks with misaligned sprinklers during the day. Upset by the images, the mayor summoned department heads to his office and bluntly ordered all city agencies to abide by the water use restrictions.

Kolb, the parks department spokeswoman, said her agency, the city's largest water-consuming department, is doing its best to comply with the ordinance, including stepping up conservation training for workers. But she noted that the park system is a sprawling operation with 400 parks and 10,000 employees.

She also said the department, at least initially, is exempt from enforcement of many watering provisions of the new law.

And she suggested that other parts of the law were unclear, including an exception that permits water use when necessary to protect public health and safety.

"That's really open to interpretation. It's very vague," she said, noting that parks face various safety issues. "You don't leave debris that can cause people to slip and fall. We need to have that more clearly defined."

The DWP, Villaraigosa's point agency for his water plan, insisted that the ordinance is clear and applies to all departments, with only narrow exceptions for use of certain types of drip irrigation systems.

The public health and safety exception is intended for very limited situations, such as washing human waste off sidewalks on skid row, DWP spokesman Joe Ramallo said.

"It's not for removing debris and leaves," he said.

At the Vermont Canyon facility, regulars complained that hosing down courts not only has wasted water, but has also rendered the popular courts unusable for hours.

Campbell, who once served on a water price-setting committee for Mayor Tom Bradley, said he occasionally brings a broom to help keep the courts clean of leaves and dirt. He thinks city workers could do the same.

"What are these people going to do when they go home," he said, looking out over the tennis complex. "They're thinking, well, heck, if the city can waste water, why can't I?"

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rich.connell@latimes.com

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