Where the wa­ter flows like money

In well-to-do ar­eas, per-capita use far ex­ceeds that of the less af­flu­ent.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Frank Shy­ong, Hai­ley Bran­son-Potts and Matt Stevens

There are few signs of Cal­i­for­nia’s epic drought along a stretch of Maple Drive in Bev­erly Hills.

Deep-green front lawns stretch out, dot­ted with healthy trees and sculpted fo­liage. The only brown lawn in sight is at a home un­der con­struc­tion.

As Cal­i­for­nia gears up for the first manda­tory wa­ter re­stric­tions in its his­tory, a long-stand­ing class divide about wa­ter use is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ap­par­ent.

Bev­erly Hills and other af­flu­ent cities use far more wa­ter per capita than less wealthy com­mu­ni­ties, prompt­ing some to cast them as vil­lains in Cal­i­for­nia’s wa­ter con­ser­va­tion ef­fort.

Res­i­dents in com­mu­ni­ties such as La Cañada Flin­tridge, New­port Beach, Malibu and Pa­los Verdes all used more than 150 gal­lons of wa­ter per capita per day in Jan­uary. By con­trast, work­ing-class Santa Ana used just 38 gal­lons, and com­mu­ni­ties in south­east­ern L.A. County used less than 45.

Los An­ge­les wa­ter us­age was 70 gal­lons per capita. But within the city, a re­cent UCLA study ex­am­in­ing a decade of Depart­ment of Wa­ter and Power data showed that, on av­er­age, wealth­ier neigh­bor­hoods con­sume three times more wa­ter than less af­flu­ent ones.

With Gov. Brown’s or­der

re­quir­ing a 25% cut in wa­ter con­sump­tion, th­ese up­scale com­mu­ni­ties are scram­bling to de­velop stricter laws that will work where years of vol­un­tary stan­dards have not. Many be­lieve it’s go­ing to take a change in cul­ture as well as city rules to hit the goal.

“Some peo­ple — be­lieve it or not — don’t know we are in a drought,” said Ge­orge Mur­doch, New­port Beach’s util­i­ties gen­eral manager, whose city is be­gin­ning to fine chronic wa­ter wasters. “We have peo­ple that own a home here but aren’t around a lot, so they could miss a leak.”

Stephanie Pincetl, who worked on the UCLA wa­ter-use study, said wealthy Cal­i­for­ni­ans are “lack­ing a sense that we are all in this to­gether.”

“The prob­lem lies, in part, in the so­cial iso­la­tion of the rich, the moral iso­la­tion of the rich,” Pincetl said.

Bev­erly Hills of­fi­cials said that un­til now they have fo­cused on ed­u­cat­ing, rather than pe­nal­iz­ing, wa­ter wasters. The city is in the sec­ond stage of its emer­gency wa­ter con­ser­va­tion plan, which calls for vol­un­tary lim­its on pave­ment wash­ing, lawn wa­ter­ing and the use of foun­tains that do not use re­cy­cled wa­ter, to re­duce wa­ter con­sump­tion by 10%.

But on Fri­day, wa­ter from foun­tains, sprin­klers and hoses seemed to flow freely through­out the city.

Across from City Hall at the Bev­erly Gar­dens Park, per­fectly green hedges frame rows of bloom­ing flow­ers, tended by col­umns of black sprin­kler heads. A foun­tain bal­anced on the backs of four stone satyrs bur­bled pleas­antly. Tourists posed for pic­tures in front of the iconic Bev­erly Hills sign, which over­looks a wa­ter fea­ture the size of a rac­quet­ball court.

City of­fi­cials plan to in­tro­duce a stricter plan at a coun­cil meet­ing this month; they say it will achieve the gover­nor’s 25% re­duc­tion tar­get. There is some de­bate over how much res­i­dents can change.

Kay Dan­gaard, a long­time Bev­erly Hills res­i­dent who re­cently moved to a condo just out­side the city, said she’s seen much apathy about the drought.

“In this part of town, ev­ery­one is just too im­por­tant to see out­side them­selves,” Dan­gaard said as she shopped at the Bev­erly Hills Whole Foods Mar­ket. “Where are th­ese peo­ple go­ing to go with all their money when the wa­ter is gone?”

De­spite the boun­ti­fully lush land­scap­ing, there are signs that Bev­erly Hills is be­gin­ning to get the mes­sage.

Mar­i­anna Dzierzbin­ska, 76, listed her wa­ter con­ser­va­tion tac­tics as she hefted straw­berry car­tons at the Whole Foods. She uses cold wa­ter that runs be­fore the shower gets hot to wa­ter her plants. When her finicky wire ter­ri­ers Al­fie and Lily knock some food into their wa­ter and refuse to drink it, she col­lects the left­overs in a bucket.

She leaned in close to share her last strat­egy.

“When I don’t have guests, I don’t flush ev­ery sin­gle time,” Dzierzbin­ska whis­pered.

At Bou­chon, an up­scale Thomas Keller restau­rant in the heart of Bev­erly Hills that seats 120, gen­eral manager Justin Wil­liams says the restau­rant is do­ing all it can to help. Wa­ter is only avail­able on re­quest. He in­structs his bar­tenders to scrape the ice for drinks, not scoop it. They use less wa­ter to wash dishes and keep the restau­rant clean.

“Of course, we take ev­ery mea­sure we can,” he said. “But we don’t have a lot of wa­ter us­age we can cut.”

There are some early signs that Bev­erly Hills may be con­serv­ing more. Ac­cord­ing to state data, the city’s wa­ter use dropped from 226 gal­lons per capita per day in July to 144 in Jan­uary. Wa­ter use is sea­sonal, how­ever, so the true test will come this sum­mer when tem­per­a­tures rise.

But some res­i­dents aren’t sure how far they’re will­ing to go. Eric, an en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try worker who did not want his full name used, said he tries to con­serve wa­ter, mak­ing sure the faucet doesn’t run as he brushes his teeth or washes dishes. But there’s also his foun­tain and the whirlpool and the lemon and or­ange trees to con­sider.

Seated at a side­walk ta­ble at Urth Caffe in Bev­erly Hills, he said he could prob­a­bly con­serve more.

“This is Amer­ica. You gotta live it up a lit­tle bit, right?” he joked.

High wa­ter use by up­scale cities is about more than life­style. Th­ese com­mu­ni­ties tend to have fewer apart­ments and less dense hous­ing. The dwellings tend to be larger and in­clude sprawl­ing grounds in need of wa­ter.

The Santa Fe Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict, which serves af­flu­ent com­mu­ni­ties in north­ern San Diego County, recorded the state’s high­est res­i­den­tial per-capita wa­ter use dur­ing one month in 2014. The dis­trict re­cently be­gan send­ing en­gi­neers to large prop­er­ties to per­form wa­ter sav­ings check­ups that iden­tify ar­eas of waste.

The re­sort com­mu­ni­ties that dot the Palm Springs area also use large amounts of wa­ter, needed to keep backyards and a plethora of golf cour­ses ver­dant amid scorch­ing desert heat.

In Or­ange County, res­i­dent Mike Bennett said some lo­cals think twice about cur­tail­ing their land­scap­ing be­cause they are con­cerned about re­duc­ing their prop­erty val­ues. Bennett said he thinks New­port Beach uses more wa­ter than other ar­eas be­cause of the way it was de­signed.

“It was de­signed for qual­ity of life, with big, open spa­ces, com­pared to ur­ban ar­eas with smaller lots,” he said.

New­port Beach, like Bev­erly Hills, has seen a steady drop in wa­ter use over the last few months. Of­fi­cials say they have limited lawn wa­ter­ing to four days a week in the spring and sum­mer and that they slap wa­ter wasters with fines. The city says it’s pre­pared to in­crease re­stric­tions, such as pro­hibit­ing the fill­ing of swim­ming pools.

Some New­port Beach res­i­dents are even tak­ing on the role of drought cop.

Glen Beli­akoff, a 53-year-old pro­fes­sional dog walker, re­cently sprayed some wa­ter on the lan­guish­ing, small strip of grass in front of his house.

A neigh­bor — a land­scape ar­chi­tect with drought-tol­er­ant land­scap­ing and no grass in his yard — snapped a photo of Beli­akoff, hose in hand, and sent it to the board of the lo­cal home­own­ers as­so­ci­a­tion.

Beli­akoff was an­gry and em­bar­rassed, but the sham­ing made him think. He would be will­ing to take out all of his grass if the state’s wa­ter sit­u­a­tion doesn’t im­prove, and adds that he and his neigh­bors no longer hand-wash their cars. He fol­lows drought news more closely, and he’s trou­bled by what he reads.

“It scares me big-time, es­pe­cially if we don’t get a han­dle on it. It’s in the back of my head, al­ways.”

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

“SOME PEO­PLE — be­lieve it or not — don’t know we are in a drought,” a New­port Beach util­i­ties manager says. The city has started to fine wa­ter wasters.

Mark Boster Los An­ge­les Times

THE LAWN be­tween New­port Beach’s City Hall and li­brary is lush. One rea­son for dis­par­ity in wa­ter use, says a re­searcher in­volved in a wa­ter study, is the so­cial and “moral iso­la­tion of the rich.”

Mel Mel­con Los An­ge­les Times

LEONARDO ALBORTANTE tends to the man­i­cured lawn of a home on Alta Drive in Bev­erly Hills, a city with high wa­ter use.

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