Water District threatens flow restrictors on water wasters

The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District building in Calabasas, CA. Photo by Samantha Bravo.

Las Virgenes considers restrictions. Will Los Angeles County Waterworks follow suit? 

Despite a wet ending to 2021, California is still in a severe drought. Water supplies are so critically low that in October, Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed a statewide emergency asking California residents to voluntarily reduce water usage by 15-percent. The City of Malibu has, for the most part, met that challenge. The conservation effort, however, has not been met as well in some pricey neighborhoods near Malibu. 

In recent months as many as 50-percent of households in the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District have exceeded their water allotments. LVMWD serves Calabasas, Hidden Hills, Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, and some 90265 Malibu residents in unincorporated areas of the Santa Monica Mountains.

In an effort to force profligate users into cutting back, LVMWD is threatening water hogs. “In a worst-case scenario, we’d put a flow restrictor on your meter,” warned Mike McNutt, Public Affairs and Communications Manager at the utility. The device is a small piece of hardware that minimizes the water that goes into your home. “You still get water in your house, but it’s a deterrent because it’s going to be aggravating. If you want to take a shower, it will trickle out.” A toilet flush could take three minutes for the bowl to refill. Turning on the tap to fill a water glass could take much longer than usual. “You’re still getting water, but it’s severely minimized because of the flow restrictor.”

“We are definitely the first if not one of the first (water utilities) to potentially use flow restrictors for flouting conservation initiatives. Normally they are used for consistent non-bill pays,” said McNutt.

Last June, LVMWD initiated a “water emergency” as the first step in its outreach effort to inform customers of the severity of the shortage. The message, “There’s an immediate, critical need to start conserving water.” By declaring a drought emergency, the utility started operating under a water shortage contingency plan. Now in step three, McNutt said, “We could initiate penalties for outlandish water usage, meaning you’re going above your allocated water budget.” That budget is determined by LVMWD based on how many people live in a home and the irrigable area outside. 

Penalties would likely be imposed on those customers going over budget by 100 to 150-percent. The provider has a tiered structure. Tier one is an “efficient” tier meaning users are within their budgets. Tier two is “inefficient.” Tiers then increase from “excessive” to “wasteful,” with the final tier hitting a 200-percent higher usage than allocated. Each tier above efficient would have penalties assessed. It’s also more expensive to buy additional water units than allocated. “The higher you go up, the more costly it is.”

Flow restrictors would only be used on “the most egregious users,” according to McNutt. First-time offenders will get a warning. A 100-dollar monetary fine is next on top of a higher bill for the cost of extra water units. With each offense, penalties are raised by 100-dollars in the monthly bills. The fifth offense adds a 500-dollar fine along with the extra fees for additional water usage. “If you reach the fifth tier, you’re spending a lot of money,” McNutt emphasized. “We could implement a flow restrictor device.”

“We’re trying to create a partnership with each household. Our job is to educate each individual homeowner on how to conserve water and be part of the solution. Water is a resource that we all share and need. Each individual has their part to make sure there’s enough to go around,” McNutt remarked.

The Malibu Times queried LA County Waterworks District 29 about the possibility of flow restrictors being used in Malibu. An email response came from LA County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella.

“We are aware that some water utilities are considering flow restrictors as a tool for water conservation. At this time, LA County Waterworks District No. 29, Malibu and Topanga, does not have plans to implement this type of water restricting valve. We do ask that our customers continue conserving water to help avoid future water shortages in the District. Customers may find water conservation tips or request a free water audit by visiting lacwaterworks.org.”