March 30, 1991 - From the March, 1991 issue

Water Hookups: Yaroslavsky’s 1991 Slow-Growth Initiative?

Growth and water, two frequently linked theme’s in Los Angeles history, have been reunited once again this winter as the drought has worsened. The mandatory rationing ordinances in City Council have also brought proposals from Council members Ruth Galanter and Zev Yaroslavsky linking new development to the drought.

Galanter’s first motion would allow the prohibition of the issuance of new water hookups during a water emergency, with some exceptions. Her second motion would establish criteria for allocating water hookups, creating a list of priority projects similar to the City’s system for sewer hookup allocations.

Mayor Bradley weighed in with his own proposal, creating an interagency task force to recommend amendments to the sewer ordinance that would require all applicants for a building permit to offset some percentage of the water demand their development would create.

To make sense of the new growth politics of water, The Planning Report spoke with Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky about his own proposal for how new development should be affected by the drought.


“This is a temporary solu­tion; I don't intend it as a permanent means of growth control.”—Zev Yaroslavsky

Describe for our readers the problem you are trying to solve by linking new development to water hookups.

We are obviously facing a major water problem in this city, a problem caused not only by the drought but by an increase in demand for water. This demand increase is due to increases in population and new construction. If there had been no growth in population or construction over the last decade, water consumption actually would have decreased, because per capita water consumption has declined.

Our aqueduct system will not produce more water and we have no capacity to increase our supply in the short-run. So we have to deal with our water problem on multiple fronts, by rationing our existing users and by imposing tougher conservation measures.

But part of our answer must be to look at our long-term demand: what is the carrying capacity for water in Los Angeles? This is not a quality of life issue: it is a life and death issue. The carrying capacity of any community is largely defined by where it can get its water. As William Mulholland said, “If we don’t bring the water, we won’t need it.” Today we’re on the flip side of that: if you bring the people, you’d better bring the water.

If you believe the reports that this is not a temporary drought but a semi-permanent condition, the people of this community will be asking why they should bear 100% of the water conservation burden so that new developments can proceed as if there is no crisis. That is a legitimate fairness question, an equity issue. So that is the environmental and political context for my proposal.

Could you outline what you are proposing?

Half of the growth in water consumption in the last decade is due to increased population and half of the growth is due to new construction. Since there’s nothing we can do to regulate the number of new babies in our homes, my proposal focuses on new construction.

We wanted to ask new DWP customers to bear a burden analogous to that of existing customers. If population and new construction together should bear the same burden as existing residents, and if we can’t do anything about population, we would assess new construction twice what we ask current customers to do.

So whatever we are asking existing DWP customers to do, we would ask new construction to bear twice that burden. As long as we are in a 10% phase, new construction should cut its water consumption by 20%. When we go to a 15% phase, as we might on May 1st, new construction should cut consumption by 30%. There’s talk among the DWP Commissioners that we may be at a 50% phase before this drought is over. If that’s the case, then my proposal would mean a 100% cutback, or zero growth in water demand from new construction.

Just to clarify, are you saying that a 20% cutback means a 20% reduction in water consumption as opposed to a 20% cutback in the number of water hookups?

I’m calling for a 20% cutback in the amount of consumption that new hookups will create. This is a temporary solution; I don’t intend it as a permanent means of growth control. This is a water issue — if we want to control growth we can do it through our zoning. I do believe, though, that we should require tough, permanent water conservation measures in new construction because at the time of new construction we can create permanent water savings.

We’re certain that if you reduce a 100-unit apartment complex to 80 units that you’ll have a 20 percent cutback in water use. I am not convinced that water-saving devices will guarantee us the same level of reductions. We may require low-flow showerheads in new homes, for example, but if the residents make up for the lack of water pressure by showering twice as long, what have we accomplished?

I believe it’s possible to make significant cuts in long-term water demand through technological advances, but it must be done with a minimal number of exemptions and a maximum amount of policing. I would be satisfied if we can get technological advances that achieve permanent water consumption reductions; I don’t think we can quite yet. So in the short run we have to act on the hookup side; in the long-run we can address the usage side.

I’m still not clear whether you’ll be acting on the hookup side or whether there will be a check-off by DWP in the permitting process. In which direction is the ordinance going?

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The Council has instructed the City Attorney to draft the ordinance, but we haven’t gotten it back yet. The motion that was adopted calls for an amendment to the Emergency Water Conservation Plan Ordinance that will require limits on new hookups as determined by the amount of increased demand associated with new construction for each type of land use. It also provides for appropriate exemp­tions and offsets similar to those allowed in the Sewer Permit Allocation Ordinance.

I believe we also need to limit the ongoing demand caused by whatever new construction we do allow, by requiring installation of water-saving technologies, but that’s a long term solution. For now, we have to deal with the drought by limiting hook­ups for new construction.

How do you react to the alternative proposal of Mayor Bradley?

I think the Bradley proposal, as the L.A. Times article on it aptly pointed out, was an effort to avoid further restrictions on development. It reminds me of Bradley’s approach to the sewer hookup ordinance. When the problem first arose, the Mayor said there was no need for a hookup ordinance, and within four weeks they had their own ordinance.

This time, the Mayor initially said, “Buildings don’t create water demand — people do.” And a few weeks later he’s created a task force to solve the problem. This is an advance for the Mayor — he now recognizes that buildings do participate in creating water demand because people occupy buildings. The manner in which he has sought to address this falls short, but I have no doubt that his position will evolve as he recognizes that something serious needs to be done.

What about the third set of proposals, those of Councilwoman Galanter? Do you feel that these are along the lines of your proposals?

Yes, I think they’re complimentary. She and I have worked together on this. I am concerned by the exemptions in her motion for a large number of users. In her proposal any project with at least 20% low-income housing would be exempt — that may now exempt every major residential project in the City. You may want to exempt the 20% but not exempt the 80% market-rate units. But our basic approaches are complementary — you want to reward people for conserving and make sure the conservation gets done.

When you ask people to make a sacrifice, the people who are making it must believe that everyone is making it with them, that no one is being excluded. It’s like the Israeli army — there are no exceptions and no questions. If all current residents are asked to cut back 15% and new development is exempted, that’s just wrong. It doesn’t mean we have to stop development, but new development will have to bear its share of the burden.

Do you have any sense from the DWP figures whether your proposal will affect residential development more heavily than commercial development?

I suspect it will affect residential development more heavily. When we did the sewer ordinance about 65% of sewer usage was residential. This makes sense — residences are where you find washing machines, showers, and dishwashers. So I would imagine that when we get the figures we’ll find that residential usage is much greater than a conventional office building. Industrial usage is more variable — it depends greatly on the industry.

The sad fact is that the water crisis and our needs for housing are colliding with each other. One of our great challenges today is to provide housing at all income levels in the City of Los Angeles, especially in certain areas. But whether you put it in Sylmar or in downtown, housing has the same impact on the water system. The need to protect our water supply and the need to produce affordable housing are in direct conflict with one another and that’s a real tragedy. The more we can protect our water supply in technological ways, the more hope we have of addressing our housing problem.

In Sacramento, a statewide role is being contemplated to address growth issues. Do you have any thoughts on the role of the state on the water hookup issue?

If there is a statewide issue in California, it’s water. A long-term water allocation strategy which includes restrictions on growth should be sent to the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) for its consideration and adoption. MWD should then require all of its contract agencies to adopt similar measures. Our local govern­ments are now being required to deal on a regional basis with solid waste reduction, hazardous waste reduc­tion, and air pollution reduction — why not water?

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