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Water Conservation Has Costly, And Stinky, Downsides

By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Under orders to slash water use amid a historic drought, cities and towns across California saved about 75 billion gallons in July, eclipsing Gov. Jerry Brown’s once-daunting order for a 25 percent reduction.

But, in a paradox of conservation, water agencies say the unprecedented savings — 31 percent in July over July 2013 — are causing or compounding a slew of problems.

Sanitation districts are yanking tree roots out of manholes and stepping up maintenance on their pipes to prevent corrosion and the spread of odors. And when people use less potable water, officials say, there’s less wastewater available to recycle.

Water suppliers, meanwhile, say the dramatic decrease in consumption has created multimillion-dollar revenue shortfalls.

Experts and industry leaders say this represents a shift into a new stage of the four-year drought.

“It’s unintended consequences,” said George Tchobanoglous, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis. “We never thought (conservation) was a bad thing. Every citizen thinks he or she is saving mankind, and I’m sympathetic, but it just so happens that our basic infrastructure was not designed with that in mind.”

Sanitation districts have worried about sewer spills for years, but officials say they have had to become especially vigilant in recent months as water use has plummeted.

Shorter showers, more efficient toilets and other reductions in indoor water usage have meant less wastewater flowing through sewer pipes, sanitation officials say. With less flow to flush the solids down the system, those solids are collecting and can eventually damage pipes.

“The costs that we’re going to face due to corroding pipes is going to be astronomical,” Tchobanoglous said. “It’ll dwarf everything else.”

In Sacramento, the sewer system is relatively flat, meaning that gravity cannot help push solids through it. Operators are reporting increased debris and more grease in pipelines, said Christoph Dobson, director of policy and planning at the Sacramento Regional County Sanitation District.

The collection of those solids heightens the possibility of a stoppage in small pipes and increases the amount of maintenance that sanitation districts must perform, Dobson said.

“We do know that we’re seeing lower flows, and we do attribute the problems … to those lower flows,” he said.

In San Francisco, officials also say foul odors have become noticeable in low-lying and flat areas of the city where gravity cannot help push solids through the system.

Sanitation officials in Orange County say that although their system is generally holding up well, they have had to flush and clean the pipes more often. Since the wastewater ends up with a higher concentration of solids, the pumps that lift and move the water could get worn down faster, officials said.

“Did we know the drought was coming and it would cause these things? Not necessarily,” said Rob Thompson, director of engineering at the Orange County Sanitation District. “Nobody likes to talk about sewage. Sewage isn’t sexy.”

Los Angeles has not experienced many of the problems plaguing its neighbors because its system is designed to move wastewater by gravity, and officials say that with 4 million people using water, there’s always enough flow.

Experts said conservation has certainly brought challenges, but pointed out that in Australia — where water use plunged during a drought that lasted more than a decade — there’s no evidence of wastewater treatment problems.

“My view is that any such consequences can be managed if and when they arise, but this should not be an excuse to not implement efficiency measures,” said Lester Snow, a former head of the Department of Water Resources who now directs the California Water Foundation.

The reduced use of drinkable water also means there is less available for recycling _ at a time when cities have been placing a greater emphasis on that form of water conservation, experts say.

Orange County is home to the largest potable reuse facility in the world. Because of a recent facility expansion and the high levels of conservation, the Groundwater Replenishment System now requires wastewater to be diverted from Huntington Beach to Fountain Valley in order to keep the facility at 95 percent capacity.

“We’re hoping that water demands will remain fairly consistent inside the house,” said Mike Markus, general manager of the Orange County Water District.

Lower water demands “potentially could be a problem for us because we built a facility of a certain size and we want to make those assets work for us,” Marcus added. “We don’t want to have stranded assets.”

At the Leucadia Wastewater District in northern San Diego County, officials have run into a different problem.

Without normal levels of outdoor irrigation, tree roots desperately in search of water have invaded sewer pipes and grown there over time.

Last December, when workers investigated a sewer spill, they found a 4- to 6-inch-wide tree root inside a pipe. Just 16 months earlier, an inspection found the sewer line “clean and clear,” said Paul Bushee, general manager of the Leucadia Wastewater District.

“We’re seeing more and more of that,” he said. “It was a learning experience for us. We didn’t think a root could go from nothing to this larger-diameter root in a year and four months.”

But the consequences of conservation have also been felt outside sanitation districts. Potable water providers say conservation is stripping them of crucial revenue.

For example, the Yorba Linda Water District is under state orders to slash its water consumption 36 percent over the next several months. A cut that size is projected to reduce revenue about $9 million over the course of the current fiscal year, district spokesman Damon Micalizzi said.

The water district had been planning to ask for a gradual rate increase over five years, but the state’s conservation mandate forced the district to speed up that process and ask for more money sooner, Micalizzi said.

Under the latest rate proposal, the basic service charge assigned to most single-family residential customers would jump to about $41 on Oct. 1 from $16.77, Micalizzi said.

“We’re feeling the pain right now,” he said. “To have this dramatic jump and the backlash that obviously comes with it is very, very daunting.”

The Santa Margarita Water District also passed a water rate increase in March that will help offset $6.8 million in lost revenue this fiscal year. Goleta Water District officials said they implemented a “drought surcharge” in July to help recover $10 million in projected revenue loss.

“It’s a fact that the amount of revenue (water districts are) collecting is going down,” said Heather Cooley, water program director of the Pacific Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research on natural resources.

Conservation, she continued, “puts water districts in a pinch in the short term, but in the long term it’s a benefit for all of us.”

Photo: Hugo Gonzalez, a Field Services Technician with Leucadia Wastewater District, prepares a robotic camera to search for tree roots in an 8-inch-diameter sewer line beneath a residential street on Aug. 25, 2015 in Carlsbad, Calif. With increasing frequency, the severe lack of rain has caused thirsty landscape tree roots to inundate underground sewer pipelines, and in the worst case to cause a blockage. (Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Drought Intensifies Debate On Backyard Pools

By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — The backyard swimming pool is again in regulators’ crosshairs as they scramble to save enough water to meet Gov. Jerry Brown’s order to cut urban use 25 percent.

More than 20 water suppliers have implemented restrictions on pools, banning new construction, prohibiting homeowners from refilling their aquatic playgrounds and requiring the use of covers, pool industry records show.

But the industry is fighting back, sending representatives to city councils and water regulators with a simple message: Swimming pools can use less water than grass and have gotten an unfair rap.

“The amount of water you need to water your lawn, that’s something you can’t even envision. But with a pool, it’s a big collection of water sitting right there and so there’s a misperception we’ve been battling,” said John Norwood, president of the California Pool and Spa Association.

The association also launched a public education campaign called Let’s Pool Together, which offers tips for pool owners to maximize their water efficiency.

“Pool owners are already saving water. But we can all do more!” the campaign’s website explains.

There is much debate about whether pools are wasteful.

Most water experts say that pools use roughly the same amount of water as a lawn of the same size. But pools also have decks, which use little or no water. And when owners use a cover to limit evaporation, a pool can use less water than turf.

An analysis last year by the Santa Margarita Water District found that pools require thousands of gallons of water to fill initially, but they use about 8,000 gallons less water than a traditional landscape after that. By the third year, the analysis found, the savings add up, and a pool’s cumulative water use falls below that of a lawn.

But conservationists say that pools are a luxury that the drought-stricken state cannot afford and that a yard full of drought-tolerant landscaping would use much less water than a pool.

“This is a private, personal, recreational use,” said Conner Everts, facilitator of the Environmental Water Caucus, an organization that promotes sustainable water management.

Pool restrictions have cropped up in cities that are cracking down hardest on water waste. For example, Santa Cruz recently enacted strict water rationing along with a ban on filling or refilling pools.

Beverly Hills, which has a history of high water usage, must slash its consumption 36 percent under the state plan to meet Brown’s conservation goal. That city finalized new watering rules in May that prohibit refilling pools, spas and ponds.

But in other places, officials have shied from pool restrictions after learning how little water would be saved.

City staff in Santa Barbara had recommended a moratorium on new pools as part of more stringent water conservation efforts. But the City Council rejected the moratorium as more symbolic than pragmatic.

Joshua Haggmark, the city’s water resources manager, said the city only permits about 13 new pools a year. Still, he said, the symbolic gesture could have carried weight.

“It isn’t a lot of water in the big picture, but it’s that perception in the public,” he said.

Water policy experts said that in this stage of the drought, it is important to give local agencies some flexibility to decide which restrictions they want to impose.

“It’s not my sense that we’re at a stage where we have to completely ban any use of water outdoors. It’s about being smarter,” said Ellen Hanak, director of the Water Policy Center of the Public Policy Institute of California. “In the case of a pool, being smart means covering it and not constantly refilling it.”

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland environmental think tank, said pools and lawns can no longer be considered a necessity.

“There are hundreds of thousands of people in the Central Valley that don’t have safe drinking water,” Gleick said. “We can’t pretend we’re not in a drought any longer.”

Photo: California water suppliers have implemented restrictions on pools in an effort to help the state cut urban water use, but the industry argues that pools can actually help save water. (Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Brazilian Enclave Takes Root, Boosted By World Cup

By Matt Stevens, Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — This corner of the Westside is one of Los Angeles’ most unlikely ethnic enclaves.

During the 1994 World Cup, Brazilian soccer fans flooded the Zabumba nightclub restaurant to watch their home country win the sold-out championship game about 20 miles away in Pasadena.

So many Brazilians came together that summer that the patchwork of businesses on Venice Boulevard along the border between Culver City and Palms grew into a full-blown neighborhood, with a market that specialized in Brazilian delicacies, a bakery, as well as perfume and clothing stores.

A few years ago, though, tragedy struck. Monica Burgos, the nightclub owner, was killed in a case that became tabloid fodder. The nightclub — the heart of the neighborhood — closed. The recession caused more stores to shut down.

Now, with another World Cup in full swing in Brazil, and the Brazilian soccer team holding its nation’s hopes, some local Brazilian business leaders are ecstatic that futbol fever has brought the crowds back to the boulevard.

“It’s beautiful to see everybody together,” Claudia Passos, 46, shouted over raucous applause at the end of the Brazilian national anthem. “Our community has had its ups and downs, but I think we are in a better place now.”

On Monday, about 100 people spilled out of the Brazilian Mall shopping center to rally around their team.

A band of drummers, trumpeters, and tambourine players made a noisy celebration the moment Brazilian star Neymar put his team ahead with a goal in the 34th minute. The noise practically drowned out the screams and claps of the delirious fans who twirled their flags and threw their fists into the air.

Brazil beat Cameroon, 4-1, to continue its march through the tournament.

“What excites me the most is that the community is backing us up,” said Marcello Gomez, a merchant and community activist who organized the viewing parties. “The World Cup is the biggest event for Brazilians living abroad, and the response we’ve gotten has been really energized.”

The Brazilian Consulate estimates that 30 percent of about 10,000 Brazilian immigrants in Los Angeles County live in the Palms and Culver City areas, drawn in by the Brazilian businesses as well as the area’s relative affordability and proximity to the beach.

However, Brazilians say that their enclave doesn’t have the same pull of other ethnic neighborhoods for a variety of reasons. Many Brazilians arrive in the United States already speaking English, and most who choose to settle in expensive California “aren’t coming to support their families in Brazil — they’re coming here to see how far they can go,” Brazilian Vice Consul Tiago Almeida said.

Still, the World Cup presents a rare opportunity for Brazilians to unite.

“It brings back the emotion and experience of being in Brazil,” Fabio Viana, 43, of West Los Angeles said at one of Gomez’s viewing parties last week. “It feels a little bit like you’re there.”


For much of its existence, the district’s main draw was the Zabumba nightclub. Monica Burgos and her sister Carla opened the restaurant months before the 1994 World Cup. Brazilians mobbed it during the games and many kept coming back after the games ended.

Men formed weekend soccer groups, and some would migrate to Zabumba after games for a beer. Even Brazilian soccer legends such as Pele and Romario would stop by for a drink and good company.

By 2000, newly arrived Brazilians knew to visit the area to meet people and get settled. Gomez saw the burgeoning community as a business opportunity and said he bought a small shop on Venice Boulevard to sell Brazilian wares. About seven years later, Gomez said, he also took control of the surrounding mini-mall, adding Brazilian clothing and cosmetics stores.

He said he poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into a remodel, adding large silver block letters that christened the space Brazilian Mall.

“I wanted to have a good representation of Brazil,” Gomez said. “A lot of people think of Brazil as naked girls and watch movies about poverty, violence, drugs. I wanted to show Brazil for its qualities.”

But the recession hit the area hard. The Brazilian cosmetic store and clothing boutique closed, Gomez said.

Then in 2010, Monica Burgos was found dead at a resort in Cancun, Mexico. Her husband, Bruce Beresford-Redman, was later charged with her slaying and extradited to stand trial in Mexico. Her sister Carla refurbished the restaurant, adding a fresh paint job, and renaming it Kikafulo in honor of Monica, whose nickname was Kika. But by the time the renovation was complete, she had no money for marketing or for employees.

At first, Burgos said, longtime customers would occasionally show up at the bar to reminisce about Monica’s bubbly personality and good nature. There were usually tears, with some customers insisting Monica was their best friend.

“I was working like 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day,” Carla said. “It was like I was fighting for my sister, until I was killing myself.”

The restaurant closed in 2012, and the space sits empty, with weeds growing in the cracks of the sidewalk. But Carla said people still call her to ask if there will be a World Cup party.

“We used to call it the party place in L.A.,” she said. “Everything was a reason for a party.”

The loss of Monica still reverberates at this year’s World Cup festivities, which are being held down the street at Gomez’s pizza buffet restaurant.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Wally Skalij

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