A multimillion dollar upgrade to Malibu’s water supply system appears stalled as two community groups differ on the scope of the project.
With plans unveiled in the summer of 2013, it appears little has moved the project forward since that time, meaning Malibu’s aged infrastructure is still failing at many locations due to leaky, broken pipes and inadequate storage. The system was patched together from roughly 20 separate neighborhood systems years ago and is in desperate need of repair, but how much of an upgrade the water supply system gets is being debated.
Advocating for Malibu, local Realtor Paul Grisanti, vice-chair of the city’s Public Works Commission, said the LA County Fire Department a few years ago announced it would no longer permit people to expand or even replace a home that is damaged by fire if there is not an adequate water supply to protect the property. The definition of an adequate fire flow for a three-bedroom house is 1,200 gallons per minute for a period of two hours. That’s roughly 150,000 gallons of water. In order to deliver that much water at that rate, a 10-inch minimum water main is required coming from the tank. With some pipes only three inches in diameter and tanks under 150,000-gallon capacity, that requirement certainly cannot be met in many Malibu areas.
The City of Malibu, in partnership with the Board of Realtors and other organizations, went to Waterworks District 29, the water supplier for Malibu and Topanga, to set up a task force to study the problems and come up with solutions. Grisanti sits on the task force, along with representatives of the fire department, the county supervisor’s office and various neighborhood organizations.
District 29’s engineers built a computer model to study the system and help decide where money should be spent. Initial estimates called for more than $250 million dollars to complete necessary repairs. The task force decided to roll out repairs in five phases, prioritizing the worst deficiencies. The last phases were for “polishing the project,” according to Grisanti, who went on to explain that “things weren’t specified for future parts of the plan, resulting in people’s conspiracy theories.” Grisanti claimed a homeowner’s group outside Malibu believes the upgrades are a “Trojan horse” to extend the water lines into the mountains where there are none currently. “Unfortunately for us,” Grisanti said, “the reps from [District] 29, rather than explaining it’s not true, they turned and ran.” However, Grisanti insisted, “This is all about replacing existing under-sized line in existing neighborhoods and replacing existing under-sized tanks.”
“The future thing you see that’s scary is all of these neighborhoods that are deficient, if they’re damaged in a fire there is no longer a fire rebuild exemption,” Grisanti explained in an interview with The Malibu Times.
Kim Lamorie is the president of the Las Virgenes Homeowners Federation. She claimed her organization is completely volunteer-based, with a 50-year history in the Santa Monica Mountains, and that her group’s No. 1 priority is safety and quality of life. Lamorie said WWD29 encompasses three land use designations that are all resource protected, encompassing Malibu, Topanga and the Santa Monica Mountains. Lamorie also claimed, in an interview with The Malibu Times, that Malibu interests have a “hidden agenda” that is growth inducing to build out Malibu and Topanga Canyon. She said the plan would bring water to remote, hard-to-reach areas. She also posits that if more structures are built there will be a greater wildfire risk, “because you’ll have more houses in areas that have no business having development because they didn’t have water.”
Lamorie went on to explain her association’s assertion that developers are not only interested in building out remote areas, but doing so using “the public dollar.” Lamorie added that future development could be significant.
“We put a priority on communities that are already there and have deficiencies,” she said.
Waterworks District 29 called the improvements “vital” and “substantial” when issuing a statement that more details and construction timelines are expected to be released in the coming months.
Grisanti speculated that the stalled upgrades are due to the water district not finishing an environmental impact report and that the Las Virgenes group perhaps had some sway over that report — and perhaps some pull at the County Supervisor’s office, where Sheila Kuehl sits on the board of District 29.
Kuehl was out of her office when contacted by The Malibu Times, but a staffer said the office is committed to robust stakeholder engagement so that this project reflects the needs and desires of all Malibu residents and added that sometimes projects take a little more time than originally anticipated.