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Los Angeles mayor seeks water restrictions, rate hike

Despite recent rain, the ongoing drought and dwindling water sources prompts Villaraigosa to seek drastic action. The DWP will vote on his proposal next week.

February 10, 2009|Phil Willon

Even with the recent batch of rainstorms, the ongoing drought has grown so severe that Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Monday called for increased citywide water restrictions and the adoption of a tiered water rate that would punish Department of Water and Power customers who fail to conserve.

Sprinkler use would be restricted to two days a week under the proposal and, by summer, could be cut to one day a week if the drought continues, Villaraigosa said. The restrictions -- the first of six levels have been in place for more than a year -- and rate changes could be enacted by spring if approved by the City Council and DWP.

"The level of severity of this drought is something we haven't seen since the early 1970s. We have to move quickly to address this problem," Villaraigosa said at a news conference at City Hall.

Quick action is necessary, he said, because the Metropolitan Water District -- a major wholesale water supplier to the city and the rest of Southern California -- has warned that it may be forced to cut water deliveries by 15% to 25%.

At the same time, the Eastern Sierra snowpack, another major source of water for Los Angeles, is almost 30% below normal for this time of year.

"I know it is raining right now," meteorologist Elissa Lynn, of the state Department of Water Resources, said later Monday. "That's not going to entirely make up for this dry year or the past two dry years. And we don't know: Is it the third year of a three-year drought, or the third year of a six-year drought?"

Water restrictions are nothing new in California, but since the last major drought in the early 1990s the state's population has grown by 9 million. Court rulings to protect the delta smelt in the Sacramento Delta and a prolonged drought along the Colorado Basin also have reduced Southern California's water supplies from Northern California and the Colorado River.

"What is being delivered here today is grim news indeed. What is being announced is, in effect, water rationing for the first time in the history of the city of Los Angeles," H. David Nahai, DWP's general manager, said.

The rationing would be achieved by adopting "shortage-year rates" to encourage conservation by altering the billing method used by the DWP.

The exact effect on DWP customers is unclear for now. First the DWP board must decide how much it wants customers to conserve, which will determine how to set rates. Villaraigosa said DWP customers probably would be asked to cut water use "in the double digits and it could be as high as 15 to 20%."

"The vast majority of people will actually save money if they comply to reduce their water use . . . those who don't will be penalized," Villaraigosa said, adding that the DWP also will expand its financial aid program for low-income families.

Currently, the DWP has a two-tier rate system, a base of $2.92 per 100 cubic feet and a Tier II rate of $2.98. The DWP charges single-family homeowners the base rate if their water use stays within 125% of the average amount of water consumed by homes on similar-sized lots and temperature zones.

The higher rate kicks in when a customer exceeds that.

For example, an owner of a 1,400-square-foot home in Van Nuys is now charged the base rate for the first 5,000 cubic feet of water consumed. If the DWP decided to impose shortage-year rates to cut consumption by 15%, that same homeowner would pay the base rate on 4,250 cubic-feet of water, and the Tier II rate on everything that exceeds it. And the Tier II rate would increase sharply, from $2.98 to $5.01 per 100 cubic feet of water.

The DWP commissioners will consider the proposal Feb. 17, Nahai said.

"We're going to have to do a great deal of outreach and education to the public. We don't want anybody to be caught unaware and suddenly see their bill go up," Nahai said. "Remember, the idea here is not to increase revenue to the department, it's to encourage conservation."

Still, even if the conservation measures are adopted, that might not prevent DWP customers from getting walloped by a separate water-rate increase later this year if the Metropolitan Water District -- which supplies more than half of the city's water -- raises its wholesale rates.

MWD General Manager Jeffrey Kightlinger said the drought and the reduction in water supplies have forced his agency to buy "more expensive water" from farmers and other sources.

"We have to charge what it costs, and we have to go out and get that water," Kightlinger said.

"We can't say, 'Sorry, we're not going to deliver water for the next few months because it's so expensive,' " he said.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Phases of water restriction

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is recommending Phase III water use restrictions. Customers are already in Phase I.

PHASE I:

Prohibits hosing sidewalks, driveways and parking areas unless permitted by law.

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