Income Disparity in California’s Drought – The Hollywood Reporter

Income Disparity in California’s Drought – The Hollywood Reporter

The ongoing climate crisis is a global, multidirectional one: forests are burning, sea levels are rising, temperatures and weather conditions are extreme. Zooming in on California — Los Angeles and surrounding Southern California regions in particular — years of historically severe drought conditions have created growing challenges with water insecurity.

And though environmental concerns affect everyone, income inequality is another crisis complicating the climate conversation, as many high-income celebrities are recently coming under fire for charting private jets for flights lasting only 20 minutes or less (resulting in concerning amounts of carbon dioxide emissions) and reckless water waste.

As recently reported by the Los Angeles Times, major Hollywood and entertainment industry-adjacent names (Sylvester Stallone, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Hart, Kourtney Kardashian) living in the cities of Calabasas and Hidden Hills have been a few of some 2,000 citizens who were recently issued “notices of exceedance” by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which services some 75,000 customers across many neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley.

These exceedances stand in contrast to the slow but steady overall reduction in water use among Los Angeles county inhabitants, aided by massive efforts by the State Water Resources Control Board to reduce water use.

Las Virgenes began its water-shortage contingency plan back in June 2021, and now, 14 months later, the district is in stage three, which requires a 50% mandatory water reduction for all customers. “The state is requiring that the conservation target is that people have about 55 gallons of water to use per person per day inside your home,” Mike McNutt, Las Virgenes spokesman, tells THR. “So what we do is we take that figure and multiply it by how many people live in your home. That’s your indoor water allocation for the month, times the amount of days in the month.”

Outdoor water allocation, however, varies based on the amount of land a homeowner has.

“One factor is how big your irrigable area is, and how much other types of vegetation you have that you need to irrigate. It’s also depending on the month, what’s the evaporation rate when it gets hotter like it is now? And if you have a ranch, you may need more water for your animals. We’ll take that into consideration when you put all those together that makes your water budget.”

Customers who exceed their water budget by 150 percent first get a warning. For every additional unit of water — the equivalent of 748 gallons — a user goes above 150 percent of their budget, an additional $2.50 per is charged, with up to five different exceedances. They can go as high as $10 each or more. 

“This is a historically bad drought. It’s been really hot — and dry. We got incredibly little rain in January, February and March. So it’s making water management pretty challenging in the state,” says James Nachbaur, director of research, planning, and performance at the State Water Resources Control Board. “That’s why we’ve been asking people in California to conserve water and to use water as efficiently as they can.”

Income Disparity in California’s Drought – The Hollywood Reporter

Calabasas, California

Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

According to June 2022 records obtained by LAT, Kourtney Kardashian’s 1.86-acre property in Calabasas exceeded its June budget by about 101,000 gallons; a 26-acre Calabasas property deeded in Hart’s name exceeded its budget by 117,000 gallons; an $18-million, 2.26-acre Hidden Hills property owned by Stallone used 230,000 excess gallons, and an $18-million Hidden Hills property belonging to Wade exceeded its allocated water budget by 90,000 gallons.

“They have more than 500 mature trees on the property, including innumerable fruit trees as well as pine trees. Absent adequate watering, in all likelihood they would die. That could result in dead or damaged trees falling on my client’s property or neighboring properties,” says Martin D. Singer, counsel to Stallone. “My client has been addressing the situation responsibly and proactively. They have let grasses die, and other areas are watered by a drip irrigation system. They also notified the city regarding the mature trees, and are awaiting an inspection and further instruction from the city about how to proceed.” Representatives for Wade, Hart, and Kardashian have not yet responded to comment.

McNutt attributes the high usages to larger lot sizes in the area. “If you live in L.A. proper, it’s more densely populated, so your lot size is considerably smaller. Therefore, if you want to have a lawn outside, it’s so much smaller that you’re not going to be using much water to irrigate,” McNutt says. “In the 60s, [suburbanization happened], and a lot of people in Los Angeles wanted to get away from the growing city to maintain a more peaceful, quiet sort of existence. So they move out here and the lot sizes are a lot bigger. You would have bigger homes, bigger lot sizes, then all of a sudden you have people who have definite affluence starting to move out here and they want to have grandiose outdoor living spaces. People here have to make substantial cuts.”

Las Virgenes is known to install flow restriction devices, which significantly reduce water flow in showers and sprinkler systems, to help curb this level of customer waste. “We have a list of about 1,610 accounts out of 22,000 total service connection accounts, that are in line to have a flow restriction device put on,” McNutt says. In August, he reported about 43 devices had been applied. Once they’re on, they are kept on for a mandatory two weeks, and if the customer still doesn’t curb water usage, the devices are left on for a month — no exceptions.

McNutt acknowledges that the customers that are more likely to ignore water waste warnings and end up needing a flow restriction device are more people with monetary means, like celebrities. “One of the things that we also have to understand is that a lot of people who have significant affluence — not just celebrities or sports figures, but very successful people in the entertainment business — they may have people who manage their properties. So there’s a barrier … they may not even have any idea of how much water they’re using.”

While outdoor irrigation makes up the largest percentage of water use, washing machines, dishwashers, showers, and toilets all play a major role as well.

“Water distribution in California is very complicated and decentralized. There are over 400 suppliers that serve water to the major cities and towns in California. And then there are thousands of additional water suppliers that provide water to smaller communities,” says Nachbaur, adding that the State Water Resources Control Board oversees and regulates many of those suppliers by tracking water use by city and water agency as part of the state’s conservation requirement.

The State Water Project provides roughly 30 percent of Southern California’s water. But as those supplies dwindle in the wake of an unprecedented drought — officially declared a water shortage emergency — the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and its 26 member agencies which service portions of Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Ventura counties (to the tune of approximately 19 million people) have been supplementing with their water supplies.

“Metropolitan sells water imported from the Colorado River and Northern California to our 26 member agencies across Southern California. Those agencies, in turn, sell it to the public, or to other water retailers that sell it to the public, often combining it with other local resources like groundwater to supply their residents and businesses,” Rebecca Kimitch, Metropolitan Water District spokesperson, tells THR by email. In order to mitigate the severity of this year’s drought, Metropolitan has required their member agencies to restrict outdoor watering to one day a week, which has shown a 35 percent reduction in water use in those relevant communities.

According to Nachbaur, the large majority of water use in urban areas of the state, like Los Angeles, are used for outdoor landscaping. This is why income disparities magnify discrepancies in water usage; the larger the property, the higher the quantity of use.

Beverly Hills, California.

David McNew/Getty Images

Elsewhere, in Beverly Hills, the city’s monthly check-ins with residents has created a culture of accountability, where most water waste is “addressed after the first alert that they may have leaks,” says Shana Epstein, director of public works for the city of Beverly Hills. “I feel people are responding well; it’s a regional effort, and we need to plan to use water wisely for the long haul. It’s not like a binge diet, it’s really got to be a way of life.”

Epstein says that the Beverly Hills region is using local groundwater, recycled water, imported water from Metropolitan Water District — along with Colorado River water and the state water they have access to — as resources for the mostly higher-income residents.

“Customers have done a really great job of keeping off the 20 percent [reduction in water use] when we first went into the drought, from 2014 to 2017. We’ve really kept that 20 percent,” Epstein says. But even still, excessive use does happen; between 200 and 300 Beverly Hills customers a month are warned that their water use is over the limit. In the fairly rare case that they are fined, those costs range from $100 to $500.

Private, residential outdoor watering is only one half of the equation. Public spaces, like city parks, have slightly relaxed regulations. “We do have some leeway because the ball field and parts of the parks are really utilized for the public good,” Epstein says, based on how the state makes lawn watering distinctions.

In contrast, however, the State Water Board recently banned the irrigation of “non-functional lawn properties that are in the commercial, institutional or industrial sectors,” Nachbaur says. “A medium strip of a lawn in front of a factory, or a car dealership. If nobody’s using it for picnics or sports and if there aren’t any trees growing in it, the irrigation of that lawn is now banned.”

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s latest news release from August on water conservation indicated that customers achieved an 11 percent reduction in July, and that July’s conservation was a 9 percent reduction from June. LADWP implemented Phase 3 of the city’s Water Conservation Plan Ordinance on June 1, which mandated that private households and commercial businesses alike should only water outdoor spaces two-days-a-week.

“It’s clear that our customers have made conservation a way of life and are doing things like taking shorter showers, watering only on designated days of the week, and taking advantage of our water conservation rebates to save water and save money,” Martin Adams, LADWP General Manager and Chief Engineer, said in the statement. Rebate programs are for people that want to transition their lawn to drought tolerant, California native plants, or for people who agree to replace an older toilet with a more water efficient one.

In July, LADWP’s Water Conservation Response Unit (Water CRU) received more than 2,000 water waste complaints from all over the city, indicating a positive trend in most Los Angeles citizens’ climate consciousness. Of those few thousand complaints, the Water CRU issued 116 citations — 3 of which carried a monetary fine.

“The increase in water waste complaints we have received shows people are conscientious when it comes to water waste that they see in their communities and we are grateful to them for being our eyes and ears because we can’t do it alone,” Anselmo Collins, senior assistant general manager of the Water System for LADWP, said in the statement.

Though aridification, the climate term for seeing things dry more substantially and more quickly, continues to be a problem throughout California, Nachbaur has hope.

“We have seen the water use levels in urban California drop a bit. And that’s been encouraging. That means the messaging about drought, about water conservation, about water efficiency is getting through. But still, the amount of conservation is not to the level that Governor [Gavin Newsom] has asked for.”

“He was encouraging and requesting a 15% reduction from 2020 levels and we’re about halfway there for the month of June. The cumulative savings is well below that 15%. So we’re watching those numbers. And then as the year progresses, we’ll be watching the weather to see how much it rains and how much it snows.”

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