Are Wealthy Californians Going to Kill Their Lawns, Too?

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy.” Ernest Hemingway was said to have famously responded to those lines, “Yes, they have more money,” in a face-to-face with the author.

The exchange apparently didn't happen quite that way, but the sentiments expressed have endured. And as California figures out the winners and losers in new drought regulations, one obvious fact is beginning to gnaw at people. Wealthy property owners have a lot more things that require a lot more water, and they have no problem paying a lot more to maintain their lifestyle.

Others do not and for many of them, ugly, dispiriting change is inevitable.

The San Jose Mercury News took a look at water usage in two Bay Area communities, separated by just 24 miles but light years apart in financial resources. The average person in the affluent Contra Costa County community of Diablo uses 345 gallons of water a day, nearly seven times the amount of a working-class Alameda County resident in San Lorenzo.

Diablo users, however, have nothing on Helen Copley, former publisher of the San Diego Tribune who was identified by the Los Angeles Times in 1997 as using 10,203 gallons of water a day at her estate. Six years later, the state made it illegal to reveal the water usage of a person or entity.

Monthly reports now required by the State Water Resources Control Board have made comparisons between 400 water districts highly visible. But the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) does not break out use by community, so the Mercury News did its own analysis.

Diablo was followed by Alamo (250 gallons a day), Lafayette (181) and Danville-Blackhawk (163). At the low end were San Lorenzo (51), Berkeley (52), San Pablo (54) and Oakland (57).

All sorts of factors come into play when comparing cumulative community numbers, including variations between microclimates, density and residential/commercial/ag breakdowns. But bigger lots tend to equal bigger water bills.

More than 400 local water agencies have a year to implement water reductions of between 10% and 35% or face huge fines from the state. But they are limited in what they can do. In April, judges in California’s Fourth District Court of Appeal ruled it’s unconstitutional (pdf) to use tiered pricing, tied to usage.

The judges said a water-pricing plan had to be based on delivery costs, not conservation incentives, and that a water agency had to provide a calculation that showed why bigger users cost more to service.

The EBMUD will begin levying a penalty of $2 per water unit on users who consume four times the district average. Sonia Diermayer of the Sierra Club told the Mercury News that was a “slap on the wrist.”  

The disparity in East Bay water usage matches what KPCC found in Southern California. Residents in Orange County’s Villa Park averaged 330 gallons a day and 20 miles away Seal Beach residents used 52.4. Villa Park median household income is $155,000 compared to $51,000 in Seal Beach.

A UCLA study published in April found, perhaps to no one’s surprise, that household income is the single greatest determinant of single-family residential water consumption. Number two was “landscape greenness,” followed by water rates. The study recommended lawmakers come up with a multi-tiered water pricing system that would, presumably, pass muster in the courts.

Conservative talk-show host Steve Yuhas of wealthy Rancho Santa Fe has another suggestion. Keep your damn hands off his water. He was quoted widely last week with a defense of the wealthy that others have only whispered:

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. And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”  

We’re not. And it’s only now in Year Four of the drought that the question is being widely asked, “Is it time that we were?”

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California Drought: Big Difference in Water Use Between Wealthy Communities and Everyone Else (by Paul Rogers and Denis Cuff, San Jose Mercury News)

Drought: Rich Southern California Cities Top Water Use Rankings, While Poor Cities Hover at the Bottom (by Aaron Mendelson, KPCC)

Rich Californians Balk at Limits: “We’re Not All Equal When it Comes to Water” (by Rob Kuznia, Washington Post)

Water Unaccountability in the Age of Drought (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

Leave a comment