The imminent prospect of rationing and steep water-price increases in California is illustrating parallel worlds in which wealthy communities guzzle water as poorer neighbors conserve by necessity
COMPTON, Calif. — Alysia Thomas, a stay-at-home mother in this working-class city, tells her children to skip a bath on days when they do not play outside; that holds down the water bill. Lillian Barrera, a housekeeper who travels 25 miles to clean homes in Beverly Hills, serves dinner to her family on paper plates for the same reason.
In the fourth year of a severe drought, conservation is a fine thing, but in this Southern California community, saving water means saving money.
The challenge of California’s drought is starkly different in Cowan Heights, a lush oasis of wealth and comfort 30 miles east of here. That is where Peter Himber, a pediatric neurologist, has decided to stop watering the hillside he spent $100,000 to turn into a green California paradise. But that is also where homeowners like John Sears, a retired food-company executive, bristle at the prospect of mandatory cuts in water use.
“This is a high fire-risk area,” Sears said. “If we cut back 35 percent and all these homes just let everything go, what’s green will turn brown. Tell me how the fire risk will increase.”
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The imminent prospect of rationing and steep water-price hikes in California is illustrating parallel worlds in which wealthy communities guzzle water as lower-income neighbors conserve by necessity.
The daily water-consumption rate was 572.4 gallons per person in Cowan Heights from July through September 2014, the hot and dry summer months California used to calculate community-by-community water-rationing orders; it was 63.6 gallons per person in Compton during that same period.
Now, California is trying to force the state’s biggest water users — which include some of the wealthiest communities — to bear the brunt of the statewide, 25 percent cut in urban water consumption ordered by Gov. Jerry Brown. Cowan Heights is facing a 36 percent cut in its water use, compared with 8 percent for Compton.
Other wealthy communities that must cut 36 percent, include Beverly Hills and Hillsborough, a luxury town in Silicon Valley.
Along with Compton, other less wealthy communities facing more modest cuts include Inglewood, which has been told to reduce water consumption by 12 percent over what it was in 2013.
The looming question, with drought regulations set to be adopted next month, is whether conservation tools being championed by this state — $10,000-a-day fines for water agencies, higher prices for bigger water users, or even, in the most extreme cases, cutting back water supplies — will be effective with wealthy homeowners, who may have little idea just how much water they use, because their lawns are more often than not tended to by gardeners.
As it is, the legality of conservation — the practice of charging higher water rates to people who consume more — came under question when a court ruled that a tiered-pricing system used by an Orange County city ran afoul of the state constitution and sent it back to allow the city to try to bring it into compliance.
Brown vs. lush lawns
In Compton, where residents often pay their bills in cash or installments, lawns are brown and backyard pools are few or empty.
In Cowan Heights, where residents are involved in a dispute with a water company over rate increases, water is a luxury worth paying for as homeowners shower their lush lawns and top off pools and koi ponds.
“Just because you can afford to use something, doesn’t mean you should,” said Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton. “We’re all in this together. We all have to make sure we consume less.”
Hints of class resentment can be heard in Compton.
“I have a garden; it’s dying,” said Barrera, the housekeeper, as she left the water department at Compton City Hall, where she had just paid a $253 two-month water bill. “In Beverly Hills, they have a big garden and run laundry all the time. It doesn’t matter. I try.”
Compton and Cowan Heights, which is 10 miles from Disneyland, could hardly be more different, and it is not only a matter of water.
The median household income in Compton is $42,953, and 26.3 percent of the population live below the poverty line; 67 percent of the population is Hispanic.
In North Tustin, the census-designated community that includes Cowan Heights, the median household income is $122,662, and 2.7 percent of the population live below the poverty line; 84 percent of the population is white.
Since the first homes sprang up in Cowan Heights in the 1950s in what had been horse pastures, water and money have made this neighborhood of doctors, lawyers and wealthy retirees bloom. Even as the drought has worsened and water rates have climbed, residents here have continued consuming hundreds of gallons a day and paying water bills that have soared to $400 or $500 a month.
Many people say they are trying to use less. They are capping sprinkler systems, installing expensive, new drip-watering systems or replacing their thirsty lawns with desert landscapes.
But they can also afford to buy their way out of the drought, assuming that fines will be the primary punishment for those who do not conserve, and that the water will keep flowing for those who can pay.
Thirty miles away, the economy in Compton is on the upswing as this region comes out of the recession. Still, Compton Boulevard, the axis around which the 127-year-old community was settled, is filled with reminders of the poverty and crime that are still here.
This city is a neat grid of postage-stamp-sized front lawns, many of them brown or choked with weeds. There are few pools or ornamental fountains, and the fountains in front of City Hall have been turned off.
After not budging for 25 years, water prices began rising in 2005 and have increased about 93 percent since then. The city, which has 81,963 water consumers, has also set up a two-tiered system to charge heavier users more, though it remains to be seen if that and other tiered systems will be challenged in the wake of the court ruling in Orange County. A typical water bill here is $70 a month.
Under Brown’s 25 percent statewide reduction order, about 400 local water agencies are responsible for implementing cuts ranging from 4 to 36 percent. Water companies are limiting how often people can water their yards — twice a week for Golden State customers — and barring them from washing down pavement or using drinking water to wash a car.
If water providers cannot get customers to conserve enough voluntarily, they can resort to financial penalties: Golden State said it would fine offenders in Cowan Heights and other communities it serves $500 a day.
About 80 percent of the water in this state is used by agriculture, so the amount of water that might be saved by cuts in wealthy and relatively sparsely populated areas will not be large.
But the disparity in behavior is a matter of concern among state water regulators, as is the worry that high prices will not have the same kind of impact on water use in, say, Cowan Heights as they might in Compton.
“That is the challenge,” said Jeffrey Kightlinger, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which provides water for about 19 million people.
“We are finding it works with 90 percent of the public: You still have certain wealthy communities that won’t bother,” Kightlinger said. “And the price penalty doesn’t impact them. It sends a bad message.”