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  • Writer's picturePaul Grisanti

Why the fire department is important to your ability to rebuild

To  build or rebuild a home in Malibu you are required to get a certification from the Los Angeles County Fire Dept. that the new or rebuilt home has an adequate water supply for fire protection.  In 2010 the LACFD changed the required “Fire flow” requirements to two hours at 1250 Gallons Per Minute via gravity.

As a Public Works Commissioner that many neighborhoods have water mains too small to deliver 1250 gallons per minute. The pipes feeding the hydrants need to have an 8 or 10 inch diameter to flow that much water.  Older neighborhoods may have 3, 4 or 6 inch diameter water mains. Once we get the pipes large enough, the next limiting point is the size of the water tank on the top of the hill supplying your neighborhood.  District 29 water is pumped out PCH from Culver City and then up each of the canyons to a tank that supplies the water via gravity to each of the neighborhoods. 150,000 gallons is the minimum size tank needed supply the water for two hours if the power is out.

When the fire flow requirements changed the Public Works policy wonks got together to point out that the new standards would make adding any square footage or rebuilding an existing home in the event of fire impossible.

In response, the City called on the LACFD department, Waterworks District 29, underground utility companies, and concerned citizens to form a task force a study the problem. Waterworks District #29 was the lead agency in the group of around 30 representatives of the various governmental agencies and others that began to meet. I was appointed to the group by City Manager Jim Thorson. I have been advocating for more stored water even prior to my appointment to PW about 15 or so years beginning with the battle over adding our westernmost Water Tank about ½ mile from Leo Carrillo back when Walt was Mayor.

I believed we had a simple but expensive problem. Distribution water mains smaller than 10 inches need to be upsized to enable the 1250 GPM required by the new fire flow requirements. Any Storage tanks smaller than 150,000 gallons would by emptied by the flow of 1250 GPM before the required two hours.

 District 29 brought in consultants who created a computer model of the distribution system and educated us on the necessity of moving the water around within the system to keep it fresh. In addition to pipes and tanks, we learned backup pumps and emergency generators are also necessary to increase the reliability of the system. The model also indicated where we should concentrate early investment to bring the largest number of existing home into compliance at the lowest cost. The price tag of the recommended improvements over the next 25 years came to about $250,000,000 in 2012 dollars. The upgrades were divided into five five-year plans with an approx. cost of $50 million each. In the past the Water district had upgraded certain areas as opportunity and ratepayer money was accumulated.  How could we pay for the upgrades? Ratepayers in all areas served by District 29 have always paid a surcharge on their bills that is used to maintain the distribution system.  The surcharge is likely to go to upgrade other neighborhood’s pipes.  It cannot be used to extend the water system into new areas.

In recognition of the 2008 financial crash and the recession that followed District 29 did not raise their rates for five years. By 2012/ 2013 the water district had very low reserves. During that five-year period the installed infrastructure continued to require maintenance as the reserves declined. The District 29 proposed, and passed a plan to raise the water rates by 5% each year for five consecutive years, with the money to be accumulated for infrastructure repairs and improvements. By mid 2017 the accumulated fund was around $25 million according to statements made by District 29 employees at meetings for the system Environmental Impact Report. 

It is unfortunate that District 29’s search for consultants to write the environmental impact report for the project took close to a year to get a contract negotiated and signed. The process was taking so long they decided to write a programmatic EIR covering all five 5 year plans and just massage it for successive ERs. They also decided to put the first two 5 year plans together at a total cost of around $110,000,000

In the public input meetings for the EIR held by the District 29 consultants only one public figure connected to Malibu spoke out against the improvements. Planning Commissioner John Mazza aligned himself with the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation, the self proclaimed “Guardians of the Santa Monica Mountains“ and joined them in spreading the lie that the plan was not a pipe for pipe improvement of the water system but rather a plan to push water service into unserved area of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

I would hope that Mr. Mazza will no longer use his mantle as a Planning Commissioner to object to the new plan anytime soon.

The EIR was finally ready to be revealed in May or June of 2017. Unfortunately the very politically connected Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation managed to further spread the falsehood that the project was just a plan to push water mains into untouched  mountain areas. They completely ignored the fact that the project was a pipe for pipe replacement of existing undersize lines and tanks. This created enough turmoil in Supervisor Sheila Kuehl‘s office that District 29 withdrew the plan and retreated to lick their wounds.

The new downsized EIR is supposed to be ready December 2018.

The new plan will have upsized pipes but very few upsized tanks. We will spend the money to get the fire flow but it won’t last long enough to meet the LACFD standard of two hours at 1250 gallons a minute. Some areas won’t even get that.  The new Plan removes proposed tanks on Upper Encinal as well as all neighbor pipes.  The Phillip Rd. tank serving Malibu West and Malibu Park is also deleted.  The so called “Portshead Tank” Which is actually above Cavalleri is also on the chopping block As frustrated as I am with District 29 I still urge everyone to turn out for the EIR hearing whenever they schedule it and support this half measure. If we are really lucky they will bring the previous plan out of mothballs and go forward with it.  I’m hoping that once the pipeline project begins the LACFD will allow construction of replacement houses in the affected areas.

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