California Takes Steps to Force Residents to Heed Water Restrictions

CALABASAS, California — Tucked into the Santa Monica Mountains, the average home here goes for around $1.8 million, the gardens are bursting with pansies fit for rainy England, and hefty fines have done little to restrain many homeowners from squandering water in a time of drought.

This week came a measure of last resort. The local water agency began choking the taps of the worst offenders, limiting the water flow of those who flouted water conservation rules, paid the fines, and kept on flouting. Their showers will henceforth slow to a trickle. Sprinklers will be rendered unusable. Good luck refilling the pool. Or the koi pond.

“This is not our preferred way of interacting with our customers,” David Pedersen, the head of the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, told me. “We are in a situation where we can’t have customers wasting water.”

Water is the great phantom of Southern California. There wasn’t much water here at all until a half century ago, when great feats of engineering began moving snowmelt and rain from hundreds of miles north, polka-dotting these parched hills with emerald lawns.

Now, climate change is giving that phantom a chase. The state is in the third year of extreme drought. Reservoirs are low. And water agencies are having to take extreme measures to get through the dry, hot summer months ahead. Climate change is no longer a future risk, Pedersen says. “We’re needing to adapt right now.”

In late April, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies local water agencies like Pedersen’s, declared a water shortage emergency and called for the strictest water cuts ever in the region.

The 4 million residents of Los Angeles are now restricted to watering their yards no more than twice a week, for 8 minutes tops, and before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m., when the water is least likely to evaporate in the heat. (You get a bit more watering time if you have water conserving nozzles and you get a break if you grow food with drip irrigation.)

Water shouldn’t leak off your property line. You’re not supposed to hose down your driveway or the sidewalk or wash your car at home (a thing I learned to do as a teenager, because I grew up in Southern California and that’s what we all did) unless you use a hose with a self-closing water shut-off. There are hefty fines of up to $600.

It’s worse in some suburbs, including the pricey ones that Pedersen serves — Agoura Hills, Calabasas, Hidden Hills and Westlake Village. They sit mostly on volcanic rock. Unlike parts of Los Angeles, they don’t have groundwater to rely on in hard times. They also use a lot of water — 205 gallons per person per day on average. (For comparison, the average person in Britain uses 37 gallons a day.)

For months, the water agency has sought to persuade its customers to pare down on the one thing these hills don’t have in excess, which is water. They’ve hired security guards to patrol the neighborhoods and leave warning tags on the doors of houses where the sprinklers are on in the heat of the day, or water is leaking down into the sidewalk. More than 600 households have been put on notice for exceeding their water budgets more than three times. (In 2015, in the last bad drought, Pedersen reached out to celebrities who live in the area, including Kim Kardashian, appealing to them to conserve.)

This year, penalties have been issued. Penalties have been paid. Pedersen acknowledged that penalties aren’t working.

He took me on a tour of the area one afternoon with one of his conservation monitors. It was midafternoon. Sprinklers weren’t supposed to be on at all. And yet, the sprinklers were on full blast in front of one house. The sidewalk was drenched.

Pedersen bent down and peered into the gutter. There was mildew, evidence that water had pooled into the gutter long enough to sprout a little tuft of algae.

He shook his head.

“This is just a waste. It’s costing them money and it’s wasting a resource that’s in short supply,” Pedersen said. “We’re in an emergency.”

That emergency was the subject of a four-hour town hall meeting in mid-May.

Residents had loads of questions. One asked if the water shortage would persuade state officials to ease a mandate to build affordable housing. Another asked if there were state rebates for pool covers. A third asked if there was an exemption for a koi pond. (The answer to all three: No.)

Flow restrictors were to be installed on the taps of 20 homes this week. When the time came, 16 of the homeowners agreed to take new conservation measures. Four had their taps tightened. Everyone in the district has to restrict outdoor watering to once a week, 8 minutes at a time.

New Mexico’s record-breaking fires: The blazes are an ominous sign for the rest of the West, where the fire season tends to start later but where conditions also warm and dry.

For more than 30 years, Julie Bargmann, a landscape architect and founder of D.I.R.T. Studio (Dump It Right There) in Charlottesville, Va., has focused on contaminated and forgotten urban and postindustrial sites, dedicating her practice to addressing social and environmental justice. The results are both beautiful and socially conscious.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Tuesday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Douglas Alteen contributed to Climate Forward.

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