Despite California's Drought, Taps Still Flowing In LA County

Jul 20, 2014
Originally published on July 21, 2014 11:52 am

This January, after the driest calendar year in California history, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency. He called on residents to reduce their water intake by 20 percent.

But downtown Los Angeles doesn't look like a city devastated by the state's worst drought in decades. The city is green with landscaping, and fountains are running. People still water their lawns, wash their cars and fill their pools.

Earlier this week, Brown announced that, compared to last year, water use this May actually went up in some parts of the state — including in coastal Southern California, the region including LA, where water use rose 8 percent. The state has responded by voting to fine water-wasters up to $500.

Mixed Messages, Partial Data

Molly Peterson, an environment correspondent at member station KPCC, says the situation is more complicated than it appears.

Take those fountains burbling in downtown LA. "This is recirculated water," Peterson explains.

Even at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, fountains are still operating — but they turn off at mid-morning, and haven't been running full-time since the spring.

"They're leaving the water in so it's not ugly, but they're minimizing the possibility that it's going to be evaporating," Peterson says.

And if some people don't feel a sense of urgency about the drought, there might be a reason for that. Peterson points out that since Gov. Brown announced the drought emergency, water agencies across the state have been emphasizing that they had enough water to last them through the year.

"In January, when the governor said, 'We're going to have a drought,' [the agencies] said, 'Oh, don't worry, we've got this covered, we've got water in our reserves,' " Peterson says.

The numbers on residential water use might also be misleading. "We only even have part of the data to tell us about the 8 percent going up," Peterson says, "because we only have voluntary responses."

This week, the state released new rules to address the drought, including for data collection.

"[The water agencies are] going to have to start coughing up their data about how much water they're actually getting through the tap every month," Peterson says.

Sending A Warning To Water Offenders

Residents, for their part, will have to limit their outdoor water use, only watering lawns two days per week and no longer washing down driveways or sidewalks.

Breaking the rules could carry a $500 fine. But Peterson says the city understands that not all water violations are intentional.

"Power goes out, and [people] start watering on the wrong day of the week, because their sprinkler system is automated and it's all messed up," she says. "Or their gardener does it, and they don't know what's going on."

So the city's approach relies more on the carrot than the stick, as quickly becomes apparent on a ride with LA's "water cop," Rick Silva.

Armed with a clipboard and a camera, Silva hits the streets. "We're gonna take a look for people that may be irrigating on the wrong day, runoff onto the street, or people washing down hardscapes," he explains.

Just a few minutes into his patrol, Silva spots his first violator: a man washing down a trash can.

His approach with the offender, Jesse Toranzo, is conversational: "You know, in the drought, you're not allowed to wash down stuff," Silva says.

Silva, whose official title is "water conservation response unit supervisor," doesn't issue a ticket this time. Most of Silva's stops don't end in tickets, actually. His approach is more about education than punishment: The city figures that once people know what to do, most will do it.

Silva says some people do get upset with him. "A lot of times it starts off that they're very defensive," he says. "Also, when we mail the letters on it, it has my phone number on there, and I get a lot of calls from people ready for a fight."

Silva says a big part of his work is letting people know that conservation is a group effort.

"We want people just to realize that it's a drought and that we're all in it together," he says. "We have to try to save water, and that's why we have these rules in effect."

And, he says, conserving water is necessary for LA's survival.

"We're not going to find any new [water] sources," he says. "We're pretty much tapped out for that. The only way we're going to meet our future needs is through water conservation."

Water Haves And Have-Nots

In another attempt to cut consumption, the Department of Water and Power has been paying cash to LA homeowners and businesses that rip out water-guzzling lawns and replace them with more eco-friendly options.

But the impact hasn't been huge. "They've replaced at least 5 million square feet of turf," KPCC's Peterson says. "That might sound like a lot, but that's a 10th of a percent of the potential irrigated land" located at single-family homes across Southern California.

And even if homeowners heed Rick Silva's warnings on water waste or take up the incentive to rip out their lawns, there's one important fact to note: Most of California's water is not used by cities.

More than three-quarters of the state's water is used by farms, according to research from the University of California, Los Angeles, although Peterson points out that the California Farm Water Coalition, which represents the state's agricultural industry, claims the number is closer to 37 percent.

Peterson says it's also important to remember that the consequences of the drought are hitting some residents much harder than others.

"California is a very, very diverse state economically, and so you have haves and have-nots," she says.

"Cities are generally haves," Peterson says. "Even though there are poor people within them, the cities keep the water on." "Have-nots, for water, are in El Dorado County," a rural area east of Sacramento: "They're taking bucket showers."

Rural residents tend to rely on wells, some of which have dried up. Friday, the federal government announced $9.7 million in emergency drought aid for those areas.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDINGS)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Tonight the drought. Governor Brown declared a drought emergency.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: A drought emergency has prompted people to start ripping out their lawns and some people are getting paid.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: The fate of the state. California's drought crisis.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 3: Is this the apocalypse?

MCEVERS: If you haven't heard, California is in the middle of a big drought. This week Governor Jerry Brown announced that even though he called on people to reduce their water use by 20 percent, water use actually went up in some places. Like here in coastal Southern California. Places where people still water their lawns, wash their cars and fill their pools.

MCEVERS: Driving here from our studios in Culver City to here, to downtown LA, the sense was you don't really feel like California's in the middle of a drought. Basically the city is like green with landscaping and there are fountains running, like the one we're standing in front of right here. And we're here with Molly Peterson, environment correspondent from member station KPCC. Molly explain to us why this is happening. Why are fountains like this one on?

MOLLY PETERSON, BYLINE: Yeah, I feel like I want to defend the city in a certain sense against the onslaught of national attention but this is recirculated water. And across the street, at the headquarters of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, there are fountains that go off midmorning. They've had them turned off from being full-time since spring because they're leaving the water in so it's not ugly. But they're minimizing the possibility that it's going to be evaporating. So, there's some level of concern about this.

MCEVERS: Why do some people here in the city still have the sense that there isn't a drought? What is it?

PETERSON: I mean, all the water agencies have emphasized ever since January, that we have enough water to keep going this year. So, in January when the governor said, we're going to have a drought, they also said, oh, don't worry we've got this covered. We've got water in our reserves.

MCEVERS: All right, fast-forward to this week and there's these new numbers that are released. In some certain places water use actually went up. In coastal Southern California here, it went up 8 percent.

PETERSON: Here it's more complicated because we only even have part of the data to tell us about the 8 percent going up, because we only have voluntary responses from all the big urban water agencies.

MCEVERS: OK, so then those numbers are a little bit misleading.

PETERSON: Yeah, possibly because San Diego is the community that has refused to give up a lot of its data and San Diego in particular has a high historic gallons per-person, per-day number. And they love their gardens and golf courses.

MCEVERS: You've been doing a lot of reporting on a program here in this region, that would actually pay people to rip up their lawns and turn their lawns into something else. First, how many people are actually doing that? And does it really make a difference?

PETERSON: They've replaced at least 5 million square feet of turf. That might sound like a lot but that's a 10th of a percent of the potential irrigated land in a single-family home by our estimate.

MCEVERS: Oh wow. So, it's not a whole lot.

PETERSON: No. So, the state made some rules this week about limiting outdoor urban water use. Only allow outdoor watering two days a week, prevent washing down anything, you know, driveways or sidewalks and then for the water agencies, they're going to have to start coughing up their data about how much water they're actually getting through the tap every month.

MCEVERS: That got us wondering, you know, how exactly these officials are going to enforce these rules. And so we asked our colleague, NPR's Sam Sanders, to go out with the one man in Los Angeles who's responsible for doing that.

RICK SILVA: My full name's Rick Silva and I'm a water conservation response unit supervisor with the Department of Water and Power of Los Angeles.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Or a water cop. Rick Silva's Squad cars is a white Honda Civic. His tools are a clipart and a camera.

SILVA: We're going to take a look for people that might be irrigating on the wrong day, runoff onto the street or people washing down hardscapes.

SANDERS: Just a few minutes into his patrol Silva spots his first violator.

SILVA: Oh, someone's washing down a trashcan. We can stop him.

SANDERS: Silva's approach with Jesse Teranzo (Ph) is conversational.

SILVA: Hi. Ya, I'm with Water and Power. And we're - we're with water conservation. We're sponsoring it - 'cause you known in the drought you're not allowed to, you know, wash down stuff. What were you doing?

JESSE TERANZO: Washing the cans.

SILVA: The cans? On the outside?

SANDERS: No, ticket this time. Most of Silva's stops don't end in tickets actually. His approach - the city's approach is more about education than punishment. They figure once people know what to do, most will do it.

SILVA: Just so you know we are in a drought, so...

TERANZO: Yeah, I know that. That's why I'm - I just keep it up very quick and that's it.

SILVA: Yeah and you are using a shut off, so that is good, so it's not running continually.

SANDERS: Silva says some people do get upset with him.

SILVA: A lot of times it starts off that they're very defensive. And, you know, like, what am I doing? Also when we mail the letters out, it has my phone number on there and I get a lot of calls with people ready for a fight.

SANDERS: People can also report water violators to Silva over the phone and through email. Silva finds another house in violation. No one's home but Silva can still issue a warning. He notates a few things on his clipboard.

SILVA: The time I was here and the type of violation and the address. The violation is watering on the wrong day and I will also add a line on there concerning runoff.

SANDERS: And so you can tell that they've sprinkled, even though it's not sprinkling right now.

SILVA: Right, because the water's there and the grass is still wet.

SANDERS: He takes a picture for evidence. Silva says a big part of his work is letting people know that conservation is a group effort.

SILVA: We want people just to realize it's a drought and we're all in it together. And we have to try to, you know, save water and that's why we have these rules in effect.

SANDERS: And he says, conserving water is necessary for LA's survival.

SILVA: Water - we're not going to find any new sources, right? And we're pretty much tapped out for that and the only way we're going to meet our future needs is through water conservation.

SANDERS: Spreading that message is Rick Silva's job.

MCEVERS: That was NPR's Sam Sanders and now back to downtown LA and our conversation with Molly Peterson, the environment correspondent a member station KPCC. So, it sounds like the approach is more about carrots than sticks. That they're not really trying to harshly crack down on people. That right now it's about soft encouraged. Is that right? Does that work?

PETERSON: Yeah, they're still saying more carrots than stick. They point out that more people - power goes out and they start watering on the wrong day of the week because there sprinkler system is automated and it's all messed up. Or their gardener does it and they don't know what's going on.

MCEVERS: See, I think it's really important to say that most of California's water is not used by cities, right? I mean, what, three quarters to 80 percent of the states water is used by farms.

PETERSON: Well the farm - the California Farm water Coalition would dispute that number - 80 percent. They say farming isn't that big of a culprit. California is a very, very diverse state economically. And so you have, haves and have-nots. Have-nots for water are in El Dorado County and they're taking bucket showers and cities are generally haves. Even though there are poor people with in them, the cities keep the water on.

MCEVERS: That was Molly Peterson, environment correspondent at member station KPCC. That place she mentioned, El Dorado County, is a rural place East of Sacramento near the Nevada border. Officials say 80 percent of California is now in an extreme drought. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.