Malibu can be considered 27 miles of weakening infrastructure year after year, particularly in its outdated water and electricity systems.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