Malibu Canyon phone poles

Overloaded power poles were blamed for the 2007 Malibu Canyon fire. 

Malibu can be considered 27 miles of weakening infrastructure year after year, particularly in its outdated water and electricity systems. 

Officials are getting ready for vast overhauls of the respective systems, while concerned residents continue tallying the power outages and watching water supply levels for fire protection in some areas.

The most pressing risk is replacing the pipelines for Waterworks District 29, which covers Malibu and unincorporated Topanga. Most of it was built around 1960 and does not meet current fire protection water demands for the district’s nearly 20,000 residents. The plan received support from the Malibu City Council in 2013.

A programmatic environmental impact report for the 20-year, $266-million master plan is scheduled for public review in Sept. 2015, according to the L.A. County Dept. of Public Works.

The majority of phase one projects labeled “high priority” are aimed at addressing hydraulic and fire protection needs, according to DPW Public Affairs Manager Kerjon Lee. However, the department also has an ongoing capital improvement program, which is a continuous effort to identify and address short-term system needs, such as aging infrastructure in need of replacement or upgrade.

The 20-year project is estimated to last through 2035. The “high priority” projects reconfigure and rebuild the most deficient pipelines and water tanks throughout Malibu and Topanga. The single priciest item is a $9.2 million emergency line construction at Encinal Canyon Road and Pacific Coast Highway. Other key capital projects range in price from $44,000 to $4.1 million. Rate hikes were avoided for the first $57 million phase.

Paul Grisanti, local Realtor and resident, served on the task force that initiated the preliminary project discussions after having served six years on the Public Works Commission.

“There are several homes in Malibu that are deficient,” he said. 

The DPW built a computer model of the existing water system and using that, its consultant figured five five-year plans to get the department the most “bang for its buck,” Grisanti noted.

“What we’re doing is hoping we can start the first five-year plan soon,” he said.

Three years ago the community reached a choking point, Grisanti notes, where large portions of Malibu could not meet remodeling standards, rebuild if the home was destroyed or add square footage due to changing fire department standards.

Fire departments require that hydrants have a fire flow of 250 gallons per minute for two hours, powered by gravity. It figures out to roughly 150,000 gallons have to be available, Grisanti said.

“If the storage tank serving your neighborhood doesn’t hold 150,000 gallons, there’s no way it meets that standard,” Grisanti said. “In order to actually get 250 gallons per minute from a hydrant to a pipe, it probably has to be 12 inches in diameter.”

“And most of our pipes are quite smaller than 12 inches in diameter,” he added.

Edison equipment another big concern

Widespread, prolonged outages from accidents at Malibu utility poles, top-heavy fiber optic cables, strong winds or simply old age have scorned residents for years. Representatives at Southern California Edison are about halfway done conducting assessments of Malibu’s utility poles, which include Topanga and Mulholland Drive to the north and to the coast.

Poles deemed unsafe are being replaced right away, according to spokesman Mark Olson, while the remaining that need attention or upgrading will be scheduled over the next couple of years, depending on need.

Edison is investing $20 billion over the next five years into its entire grid to improve reliability and performance, which is part of the state’s Public Utilities Commission’s (PUC) efforts to improve pole safety and loading to meet new standards.

Olson estimated about 40 poles are being replaced on Malibu Canyon Road, and for the greater area, he said it is “quite possible” it will be in the hundreds. He said this work should minimize outages in the future since the poles will be sturdier, taller and wider in circumference. Most of the city’s poles are more than 30 years old.

“So if a car hits a pole, sometimes we can route the power around and sometimes, we have to replace the pole for the final customers where power can be routed,” he said.

Also, he said it is possible two poles may replace one, but it’s not likely.

Any rate increases are built into Edison’s three-year cycle, and the system-wide improvements will be reflected there, Olson noted.

Resident Hans Laetz has been monitoring Malibu’s power issues for years and served as a citizen intervenor in a lawsuit against Edison and several other utility companies over the 2007 Malibu Canyon wildfire. He notes that the PUC still needs to approve updated rules on overhead utility poles in high fire areas.

He also said Edison is preparing for a new rate hike across the region and there has not been an outside financial study showing how much the utility pays versus how much the ratepayer pays, and whether the ratepayer has already covered the cost.

“We’re three years behind schedule and slipping,” he said. “It’s an extremely complicated procedure. This should have been done at the end of 2012. 2018 looks more likely now.” 

(10) comments

I agree with Tom, the city does not have enough of a population to support super centers. However, it is not just the super centers, it is the chains. The unique character that Malibu offers is what separates it from elsewhere. Does it not bug you that one can travel from town to town and they all look the same. Same Best Buy, same Target, same Starbucks, etc. What is the point of traveling anymore when one can get the same thing anywhere.

In the mean time, any updates on the alleged intoxicated driver one Saturday morning after the check points closed that hit the pole and knocked out power to Malibu?

Hans Laetz

8Robert8, the time is now to demand state legislators pressure the PUC. There is a crying need top divert the million that SCE is going to spend on new poles into undergrounding. Malibu and other regions need the ability to divert this money, supplement it with local assessments, and go underground. The PUC needs to come up with a "rate case" that can do this. Otherwise, we are going to replace our obsolete 70-year old wooden poles with a whole new generation of them.

Hans Laetz

Tom, old friend, that's simply not correct. When I was running for city council, I tried passing out brochures to Malibu voters at the downtown Malibu malls. 98 percent of the people there told me they were from Calabasas, Bev Hils, Woodland Hills, etc. Or from out of LA County. These people decided a spin up PCH and then shopping/star seeing/lunch at the Malibu malls was a delightful way to avoid the smog and heat of the city.

Go to Grumman's Chinese Theater and you'll find barkers selling "Malibu Shopping Tours." Our "Civic Center" has morphed into a tourist mall --and that's NOT the coastal-oriented visitor envisioned by the Coastal Commission and the city vision statement.

In 10 years, it will look like a high-end Fisherman's Wharf, without the good street food.

Tom Bates



Robert Dot

We have people communicating/managing the power pole project that should not be. Poles that are wider, bigger, taller is not the answer. The power company will only lay more lines on them. Poles must go below! Dont create more danger and an even larger system. These are not your grandmothers phone poles. We don't require three/four story tall telephone poles. Malibu deserves a quality safe underground system and this takes planning by people that know what they are doing not just passing the buck along with taller bigger thicker poles. We need quality representation that can fight for what we deserve as a community. Not simply updateing power polls but solving the long term problem for good. This takes long term planning.

Andy Choka

Tom--The developers have applied for four development which equal over 400,000sq ft. With EIRs costing many hundreds of thousands each why , if they are not going to build the shopping centers, do you think they are spending the money.?

Tom Bates

Andy you take the old pipe out and put the new pipe in its place. You don't have to widen anything'

There will be no giant commercial development in Malibu EVER the population of 22,000 to 25,000 people will never support it!


Andy Choka

The article forgot our most important infrastructure limit and that is PCH. It cannot be widened in east Malibu. The only way to help out the situation is to limit growth especially too much commercial development and density increases like condos at Trancas fields. Vote yes on Measure R.

By the way the fire flow requirement is 1250 gal per minute not 250.

Tom Bates

When Malibu became a City The water in in Pacific Coast Hwy was falling apart . I may need to be corrected but Dick Sherman (Topanga Undergroud) I believe indicated that 55,000,000 was needed to up grade and repair the water system
at that time. It could have been before I honestly don't remember.

The increase in fire flow requirements is a poor;y thought out attempt to force the citizens of Malibu and Topanga to pay for the upgrades even tho thousands of land owners had paid for a water service that was paid for but not delivered../

It seems that if you are bonded and forced to pay for water service you should get! Not have the County try put a unreasonable burden on land owners and condemn it through abusive water flow standards.[sad]

kayo jon

The article forgot to mention that the overloading of power poles with cell phone equipment and other outside companies infrastructure is one of the leading ways in which the power poles are endangering our community to fire risk.

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