Angelenos who don't conserve water could face higher utility bills this summer under rates approved Friday by the City Council.
The rate changes, spurred by the state's ongoing drought, aim at cutting Los Angeles water use by 15%.
"We're facing an urgent situation and we really should not delay," H. David Nahai, general manager of the Department of Water and Power, told the council shortly before the panel voted 9 to 2 to adopt the conservation pricing.
The rates will be built around the city's existing two-tier billing structure, which gives customers a base water allocation that varies according to factors such as lot size, temperature zone and the number of people living in large households. Usage above the base is billed at a higher rate.
Under the conservation measure, the base water allotment will be trimmed by 15%. Customers who stay within that lower limit will not see higher bills. But second-tier rates will jump 44%.
DWP officials said those expected to bear the brunt of the penalty charges are large-lot owners who already use more than their basic allocation.
The department estimated that single-family residents who don't conserve will pay a median of $5 to $8 a month more.
Council members complained that DWP bills don't make it clear to residents how much they have to cut consumption to stay in the first-tier pricing. "Why can't you just put it on the bill?" asked Councilman Dennis Zine.
Nahai said the department is planning to explain the rate changes through advertising and bill inserts. Information also will be made available through the DWP's customer service line, 1-800-DIAL-DWP, and the department's website, www.ladwp.com.
Councilman Richard Alarcon, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, said the new pricing would hurt horse owners. "You can't tell your horse, 'Don't drink that much today.' "
He proposed an amendment, which was passed, asking the DWP to devise hardship exemptions for customers with livestock and special medical needs.
Councilwoman Janice Hahn argued that before the city adopted penalty rates, it should have created more conservation programs, such as giving rebates for drought-tolerant plantings.
"We're working backward. . . . How can we do a better job of incentivizing, not penalizing?" she asked.
Zine and Hahn voted against the measure. Council members Tony Cardenas, Wendy Greuel, Jack Weiss and Bernard Parks were absent.
Statewide water conditions have improved in recent months, and state water managers said Thursday that they will send more supplies to Southern California than earlier predicted.
But water shipments from Northern California will remain well below the norm. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a wholesaler of imported water, is cutting deliveries to the DWP and other agencies by 10%.
"We're still tremendously short of water," Metropolitan General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger told the council. "We urge all our cities to do this."