Water, Water Still Is Scarce, Except for California's Rich

California’s decision Wednesday to let water districts self-regulate their usage has people worried the wealthy will opt out.

A boy dives into a swimming pool in Long Beach, California, in May 2015.  (Chris Carlson / AP)

El Niño came to California, and now the state has been saved of its five-year drought––or at least some parts have. In the north, the boats in Lake Oroville and Lake Shasta no longer run the risk of beaching themselves on lake beds that had started to looked like open-pit mines of rock. But in the south, in San Diego, Riverside, Los Angeles, and the many small towns surrounding, it’s another dry summer, as more than 70 percent of the California is still in severe drought.

That’s the duality Governor Jerry Brown mentioned when he asked the state’s water-regulatory board 10 days ago to end statewide water restrictions. On Wednesday, the board listened, and voted 4-0 to pass Brown’s proposal. Under the new rules, each district will set its own regulation limits. The state has said it will audit the district’s past water use to make sure its goals are in line, but it will do this through a system it calls “trust, but verify,” which hasn’t imbued much confidence for water-conservationists who want the statewide mandate to stay.

The ruling was an abrupt change from just a year ago, when Brown ordered all districts and the 411 water suppliers to collectively cut 25 percent of water use. For a year, car-obsessed L.A. went without a wash. Suburban lawns turned sallow, then brown, until finally people gave up and spray-painted their grass gree. Then this March, parts of the state had an unusually large amount of rainfall, enough to restore aquifers to near-normal levels.

The State Water Resources Control Board’s recent ruling to let each district decide its own conservation limits is supposed to let those communities that saw lots of rain this spring relax and stop worrying about conserving water, while many of the communities in southern California must continue to go without. Except, not everyone went without water in the first place, and the new rule for cities to self-regulate has people worried that certain localities will more or less opt out. That’s because some people remember that while the land in Central Valley sunk into its dried up wells, and the poor in the San Joaquin Valley suffered empty taps and toilets that didn’t flush, some wealthy neighborhoods filled their pools a little higher and asked, What drought?

One popular offender was the “Wet Prince of Bel-Air,” an unnamed resident of the posh Los Angeles neighborhood. A study from University of California, Los Angeles, found the city’s wealthy regularly use three times as much water as the less-affluent, but the “Wet Prince” took this to an absurdity. This single homeowner consumed 11.8 million gallons of water in one year. That’s enough for 90 homes. Bel-Air is in the Los Angeles water district, so while the rest of the city tightened its taps, or even looked to Australia for water-cutting techniques, the Wet Prince seemed to have turned up every faucet. A posse of angered drought-minders patrolled Bel-Air, and the news media made a mad search to learn who this homeowner was. Newspapers demanded the water agencies release the offender’s name, as well as those of top water-wasters.

Nothing came of it, and the water supplier refused to reveal the homeowner’s identity. But the “Wet Prince” was not alone. Just north of San Diego, in the pastoral and faux-farm community of Rancho Santa Fe, Marty and Pamela Wygod, horse racers, owners of almost 100 acres, and an infinity pool, had pumped nearly 14 million gallons by the end of 2014. And that was a drastic reduction in their water use. In 2003, the WebMD Health Corporation chairman and his wife used 57 million gallons, and in 2013 they used 28 million gallons. From those highs, the Wygods had cut down their use during the drought, and said their 50 percent decrease from the past year was an effort to “set the best example in the state.”

At least the Wygods tried. In April 2014, when Governor Brown announced the statewide mandatory water cuts, Rancho Santa Fe’s water usage increased 9 percent. The New York Times visited the gated community in November 2014, and the reporter found an eden of healthy and perky putting greens. The Times wrote:

The lawns and horse pastures here offer a stark reminder that, although drought has blanketed the entire state, the burdens of the dry reservoirs have hardly been spread evenly.

Then last June, The Washington Post visited, and the strain of state-forced water cuts seemed to have angered the community. Steve Yuhas, a resident and conservative radio host, posted on Facebook that people “should not be forced to live on property with brown lawns, golf on brown courses or apologize for wanting their gardens to be beautiful. We pay significant property taxes based on where we live.” Then he told the Post in an interview, “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”

“What are we supposed to do,” interior designer, Gay Butler, who was out for a horseback ride, asked the Post reporter, “just have dirt around our house on four acres?"

In Beverly Hills, the story was much the same: David Geffen, the film studio executive, used 27,000 gallons of water each day for two months last summer––during the mandated regulations––and comedian Amy Poehler received a notice for overusing, too. All of Beverly Hills wasted so much water and refused to self-regulate so often that in October 2015, the water board fined the city $61,000. As the Los Angeles Times reported, the only tact that seemed to get Beverly Hills to cut its use was public shaming.

But with the new regulations announced this week comes a new fear: Will cities with enough residents who ignore the water restrictions opt out of conservation efforts?

That was the question Sara Aminzadeh, executive director of California Coastkeeper Alliance, a water conservation organization, asked the Los Angeles Times after the state announced the new rules. When it comes time for wealthier water districts like Palo Alto, Rancho Santa Fe, or Beverly Hills to self-regulate, “What do we think Beverly Hills is going to be proposing in terms of conservation?”