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L.A.'s water emergency

Recent rains mean nothing; the city must get serious about dealing with water shortages.

February 13, 2009

On Monday, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa proposed accelerated water restrictions for Los Angeles -- and the city got about a third of an inch of rain. In the past, showers were considered bad luck for a conservation push, but these days they are a fitting backdrop. We may get a rainy day here or there, but Angelenos must learn to treat today's drought conditions as the new normal. The Department of Water and Power, the City Council and residents all should move quickly to implement the mayor's plan, which calls for limiting lawn sprinkler use and sharpening the city's "tiered" pricing scheme.

The argument for acting now is compelling. This winter, like the last, has been very dry. Los Angeles' own water supplies are running low, and various constraints on imported supplies -- low snowpack, agreements reallocating water from the Colorado River, court orders that have shut down the State Water Project's massive pumps to protect native fish -- have only complicated matters. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California anticipates that it may receive as little as 15% of its allocation from the State Water Project this year and that, starting in July, it might have to ration water to cities, including L.A., reducing deliveries by 15% to 25%.

The sooner we get into the habit of using less water, the easier that cutback will be. The DWP estimates that outdoor irrigation -- running sprinklers -- makes up 30% of residential water use in Los Angeles. Limiting sprinkler use to Mondays and Thursdays would be a simple-to-remember (and simple-to-enforce) way to reduce waste. Ideally, we'd like to see Angelenos change their habits in longer-lasting ways, such as landscaping with drought-tolerant plants. But as a means of cutting use and promoting mindfulness, these restrictions make sense.

More attractive still is tiered pricing with teeth. Los Angeles already has a system that sets a limit on how much water a household can purchase at a moderate "tier one" price. Under normal conditions, "tier two" pricing for water use beyond that limit has been affordable as well. The mayor's proposal would institute "shortage year rates," making tier two kick in sooner and raising the cost for 100 cubic feet of tier-two water from about $3 to more than $5. That may be enough of a bump to make us think twice before indulging in daily 30-minute showers.

Again ideally, we'd like to see tougher tiered pricing made permanent. DWP officials say they're hoping to revisit the way tiering works in coming months. We hope the drought encourages that effort, as well as plans to reclaim wastewater and rainwater and to further conserve. Water will always be in short supply for L.A. Getting used to that must remain our priority.

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