Los Angeles considers officially 'drought shaming' water violators

Drought-stricken Los Angeles is weighing new ways to crack down on residents who use more than their fair share of dwindling water supplies. For the first time in many years, such water hogs could be publicly named in an official version of the increasingly familiar and social-media-driven phenomenon of “drought shaming”.

Earlier this month, LA councilman Paul Koretz had a motion approved that gave the city’s department of water and power 30 days to recommend measures to curb excessive water use, up to and including shutting off supplies. According to the Los Angeles Times, the city council is also considering stiffening the rules on water conservation with “substantial” fines for excessive consumption.

The naming and shaming of heavy users would be a similarly draconian step.

Bronson Mack, a spokesman for the water authority of neighbouring southern Nevada, said the publication of the names of water-wasters in his state had often proved an effective way of changing water use habits. Individuals were notified by the authorities when their names were about to be released in the public records, he said.

“Some people tell us they did not know they were on the list, and we can then work with them to help them get their water use down,” Mack told the Guardian. “It’s a who’s who of influential people. Often, people are shocked at how much water they use.”

In southern Nevada, the making of public records requests to identify the biggest water hogs has become an annual media exercise. Data is not yet available for 2014, because it has not been requested, according to the authorities.

The 2013 list of the top 100 water users in the Las Vegas Valley and southern Nevada water district, however, included the world-champion boxer Floyd Mayweather, who was deemed to be using enough water at his large estate in the area to supply 108 ordinary homes.

The list also included Prince Jefri Bolkiah, the brother of the Sultan of Brunei, who used 11m gallons of water a year at his estate – down from 18m gallons in 2008, a change that perhaps suggests naming and shaming can work.

In LA, the city council’s deliberations follow the revelation by the Center for Investigative Reporting earlier this month that the heaviest individual water user in the city was an unnamed resident of an upscale neighborhood – nicknamed by an outraged public the “wet prince of Bel Air” – who was using 11.8m gallons a year, enough to supply 100 households.

Four of five of California’s top single-family residential water users live in Bel Air. On Thursday, the California state water resources board fined nearby Beverly Hills and four other cities in southern California for failing to conserve enough water.

Naming and shaming over water use has occurred in LA, if not officially. Earlier this year several celebrities, including the normally conservation-conscious Barbra Streisand, were embarrassed when lush, water-sucking lawns at their LA-area homes were exposed by aerial photography.

It is rare, however, for local authorities to list or release the names of heavy water users. In northern California, the East Bay area, across the water from San Francisco, has seen lists published in the press following public records requests.

Recently, Billy Beane, executive vice-president of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, was exposed as an excessive water consumer and prompted to make a public explanation about how he was fixing leaky pipes from his swimming pool system.

LA leaders are now discussing such public disclosure. Few details are available and it is not clear whether the city would publish its own list of heavy water users or simply make the data available to public records requests.

That second option would not guarantee success for potential drought-shamers. In many areas of California, such public records requests are generally blocked, using legislation that was amended in 1997, after people were named and shamed during the last major drought.

Near Las Vegas, Lake Mead, which was formed by the Hoover Dam restricting the Colorado River, is at very low levels. California and Arizona rely heavily on the same supply.

Bronson Mack said the huge casino complexes and hotels on the Vegas Strip were always on southern Nevada’s list of excessive users. But he said rules on recycling all water used indoors meant that much of the water sloshing through the establishments on the Strip was treated “almost to drinking purity”, then returned to Lake Mead.

“That doesn’t cover swimming pool water,” he conceded.

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