Little Water Wars

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This is Kevin Roderick with LA Observed for KCRW.

Some wise observer whose name I don't remember once said that everything in the West is about water.

Who has it, who wants it, who controls it.

Los Angeles these days is sort of in the lull between water wars. Peace reigns for now in the Owens Valley, where LA is trying to look more like a friendly occupying force than a hostile invader.

The epic political battles have not yet escalated in the next war. The one over who will lose when the west runs out of water to sustain both agri-business and big, sprawling cities and suburbs.

We'll find out about all that soon enough. Especially if real snow doesn't start falling in the Sierra Nevada again, or if Phoenix begins to look any more like the LA basin.

In the meantime, LA keeps being reminded in smaller ways just how enduring water is in our political culture.

This week, the city council member from the northwest corner of the Valley, Greig Smith, announced that he personally ignores the city's restrictions on lawn watering.

He didn't hedge on it. The rules that took effect this year say residents of the city can only run their sprinklers twice week, on Mondays and Thursday. And only for 15 minutes.

It's never been quite clear how the city's Department of Water and Power came up with a schedule that penalizes weekend do-it-yourselfers. And, by extension, seems to assume that everyone has automatic sprinklers or a gardener.

But it's what the City Council adopted as the law of the land. The DWP boss, David Nahai, has been busy selling the twice-a-week ethic. And inspectors have been writing lots of warning tickets to violators.

Councilman Smith says fooey on all that. He waters three days a week, for shorter time – just eight minutes. That's less total water use in a week.

Even in the city's hottest corner, Smith told Rick Orlov of the Daily News, his grass has never looked greener.

I can just see Nahai turning a little red around the ears at this. The goal of reducing water use depends on voluntary embrace of shared sacrifice. Now here's an elected councilman -– a reserve police officer at that –- scoffing at Nahai's Law.

Nahai's spokesman said the DWP is considering a response, and won't retaliate by sending inspectors to drive by Smith's house. But if they happen to see a violation, they'll write it up.

I find the skirmish kind of amusing, and not for the first time this summer. A few weeks ago, Channel 4 caught the sprinklers running on banned days at Mayor Villaraigosa's city residence.

There's also been a complaint that city parks and golf courses were too brown and needed more water. Last year it was Nahai himself found to be wasting water at home.

Councilman Smith's defiance comes as the DWP and the City Council are trying to figure out why so many major water pipes have been breaking, creating sinkholes all over LA.

A prominent USC engineering scholar has theorized that the water rules themselves may be responsible. He argues that by shifting demand to Mondays and Thursday, the city's aging pipes may be enduring new stresses.

It sounds far-fetched, and Nahai says there's no evidence of the flow rates changing enough to cause ruptures. But that means the DWP has no good explanation, so a team from USC, JPL and Cornell has been put on the case.

I have the answer. The trunk line that ruptured in Sherman Oaks, blocking traffic into Coldwater Canyon, was one of the very first pipes to carry Owens Valley water across the San Fernando Valley into the city in the 1910s.

Mystery solved. It's Chinatown, Jake.

For KCRW, this has been Kevin Roderick with LA Observed.