There may be a four-years-and-counting drought in California, but that isn’t stopping its richest residents from wasting millions of gallons of water on lawns, pools, orchards, and even artificial waterfalls.
Reveal News, the investigative reporting podcast, looked into these “mega-users” as it calls them, and found that the biggest scandal isn’t that rich people are wasteful and entitled (which surprises nobody), but that California, land of sunshine and drought, has no laws to stop it.
Reporters Katharine Mieszkowski and Lance Williams couldn’t get access to the names of the biggest water users in either San Francisco or Los Angeles. The best they could manage was a list of the amounts of water consumed by the largest users. This is thanks to a change in law back in 1997, when the State Legislature amended the public records act to make utility bills secret. This was requested by Palo Alto, home to many rich folks who’d prefer to keep their excesses quiet.
The water agencies can make this data public, if they consider it to be in the public interest. So far, they haven’t.
The biggest offender in San Francisco is in the Diablo community, zip code 94528. There, 12 houses each slurp more than 1 million gallons a year. If you look at satellite images of the neighborhood, you’ll see swimming pools and even a golf course. One of those homes uses 3.5 million gallons which, says the report, is 26 times what the average Californian single-family home used before the drought.
But even Diablo’s 3.5 million gallon home is a mere dripping tap next to Los Angeles’ worst offender. Up in Bel Air, one home pumps 11.8 million gallons of water out of its pipes in a year. That’s enough for 90 regular family homes.
The law does nothing about it. As long as you have the money, you can waste all the natural resources you want.
“There’s nothing that pertains to the actual volume of water. It’s all about following the rules,” says LA’s senior assistant general manager of water systems Marty Adams.
Instead of targeting water wasters, LA’s water agencies issue tickets for wasteful behavior, like hosing down a driveway or watering the lawn on the wrong day. If you’re ticketed for such an offense, it’ll cost you $300. That’s nothing for mega-users, but it doesn’t matter anyway. Mieszkowski says that nobody in Bel Air has gotten a ticket in the past year.
In drought-prone areas like California, water is a scarce resource, but it isn’t treated as such. Storm water is allowed to run into the Pacific, and water costs a quarter of what it does in rainy Seattle.
The solution to misuse by regular folks may be price increases and water metering, but rich folks won’t care about that. What they might care about is public shaming, but while the identities of the biggest offenders remain secret, that can’t happen.