California Water Officials among Biggest Wasters

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

While water cops roam the state—flagging conservation scofflaws and shaming abusers on social media—amid Governor Jerry Brown’s declared state of emergency and calls for 20% cuts in personal use, those who are charged with managing water resources are using way more than the average citizen.

A joint investigation by NBC Southern California and The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) looked at two years worth of billing information for 150 local officials at 22 water agencies in the state. Each of the Top Ten water users in the sampling used more than three times as much water as the average California single-family home, which is 361 gallons a day.

The reporters, who cited the state’s Public Records Act, did not obtain all the information they sought. Three of the 25 agencies originally approached—the largest nonagricultural water supply agencies in the state—said they weren’t state entities and weren’t covered by the Act. Some agencies supplied incomplete data; in some cases bills weren’t in the name of the official or the official wasn’t hooked up to a meter. There is still a lot of that in the Central Valley.

Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines was the worst offender in 2013, using 9.5 times the average amount of water. His 1.2 million gallons of water a year outdistanced Riverside Councilman Mike Soubirous at 1.1 million and was nearly double anyone else on the Top 10 list.

Baines blamed a sprinkler malfunction and said he has since fixed it. His most recent bills are, indeed, a fraction of those in his profligate days.

Soubirous didn’t really have anything to blame. He has a 1-acre lot with a lot of shrubs and a willow tree. Soubirous doesn’t know what he could do differently. “Do I have to sell my house to set that example, or do I have to just abolish all my shrubs?” he asked CIR.  

One thing he could have done is not water his lawn seven nights in a row last month. NBC bird-dogged his place and said, when confronted, that Soubirous said mistakes may have been made.

In July, Soubirous voted with all his fellow councilmembers to activate mandatory conservation restrictions in Riverside (pdf). Mayor Rusty Bailed said at the time, “California is faced with continued, and increasingly serious, drought conditions and we are all obligated to take steps now that will help conserve our valuable water supplies.”

The restrictions echoed those approved in communities across the state that cut watering times and irrigation, prohibited washing down sidewalks, and cut the hours for washing boats and personal vehicles. Violators face a $500 fine.

State records indicate that Californians are finally cutting back their water use. August usage was down 7.8% from one year before. That was not the story in May, when usage actually rose 8% compared to the month of May from 2011-2013. There are no numbers to measure the use of water by farmers. Between 80% and 90% of water usage in California is for agriculture.

The investigative report underscored a danger in cataloguing the behavior of water users as California’s drought slips into a fourth year. A number of individuals on the Top 10 list had already reduced their water usage by ripping out lawns, replacing sprinkler systems and turning off water timers.

But Coachella Valley Water District Director Peter Nelson said it would be tough for him to reduce his 1,500 gallons of water use a day. His son’s water polo team parties in his pool every week.     

The report also sounded what could be construed as a cautionary note about relying on water usage numbers to point a finger, or heap praise, on an individual. San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee used only 53 gallons a day at his home. Although a spokesperson for the mayor noted that conservation was a “way of life” for him, the low total could have something to do with a schedule that frequently takes him away from home.

The Top 10 water users in the CIR/NBC report are:

  Name Position Gallons per day
1.   Oliver Baines  Fresno City councilmember 3,421
2.   Mike Soubirous  Riverside councilmember 2,996
3.   John Powell  Coachella Valley Water District board president 1,808
4.   Andrew Walcker  Riverside Utilities boardmember 1,799
5.   Nick Ferguson  Riverside Utilities boardmember 1,791
6.   Peter Nelson  Coachella Valley Water District director 1,521
7.   Randy Record  Los Angeles Metropolitan Water district 1,383
8.   James Curatalo  Cucamonga Valley Water District director 1,291
9.   Franz De Klotz  Coachella Valley Water District director 1,260
10.   Paul Caprioglio  Fresno City councilmember 1,217
  * Average single-family home usage is 361 gallons per day.  


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