Paul Brown sets out before sunrise to patrol Sacramento for circumstantial evidence that someone is wasting California’s scarcest resource. It may be a moist sidewalk, or a flooded curb gutter, or a suspiciously damp driveway.
Every so often he catches a lawncare infraction in action: sprinklers whirring on a city-mandated no-watering day.
Brown usually gets away unnoticed after writing a warning or citation, but early risers can complicate his job with the municipal Water Conservation Office. One rule-breaker he snared called him a water Nazi. Two weeks ago a woman swore after he issued her a $50 fine. Homeowner Robin Sortman, watching Brown snap photos of his telltale wet pavement, asked why the city gets to decide which two days a week he can irrigate.
“I’m not sure I understand the problem,” he said, showing off his empty swimming pool. “I’m not able to enjoy my summer this year. I shower twice a week. We don’t flush the toilet every time. We use our water very minimally.”
California’s epic drought, four years old and seemingly endless, is getting on people’s nerves. Regulators issued rules last month for cutbacks that Governor Jerry Brown ordered in April, marking the first time all the state’s 39 million inhabitants have been forced to conserve.
Some are better at it than others, which is why there are water cops like Brown, and hotlines and websites in cities including Los Angeles, Bakersfield and Stockton for residents to snitch on the profligate. Which, according to city officials, residents are enthusiastically doing.
“We’re in a really deep hole,” said Peter Gleick, co-founder of the nonprofit Pacific Institute in Oakland, which focuses on water issues. “There’s this feeling on the part of some, ‘Why are you asking me to do more when my neighbor has done nothing?’”
The 411 water districts that supply non-agriculture customers must trim deliveries from 2013 levels by a range of 4 percent to 36 percent -- depending on historical water consumption -- to achieve the statewide 25 percent reduction decreed by Brown. (Farms are furnished by other providers that have also had their rations severely curtailed.)
A mix of steps is being taken to achieve the goal, such as dictating when outdoor taps can be switched on or imposing surcharges on residences or businesses that exceed per-gallon monthly caps, and Californians are having a hodgepodge of reactions. One is drought-shaming, which, of course, is a hashtag on Twitter.
People post photos to call out wasters, taking keen interest in celebrities and owners of mansions in places like Montecito and Beverly Hills. Oprah Winfrey, Sean Penn and Kim Kardashian and her husband Kanye West have taken heat for their yards’ lushness. The app for that is DroughtShame, which can be used to send pictures of water-wasting to authorities.
“I don’t think we have clear evidence that shaming is an effective way of changing people’s behavior -- but it does satisfy the desire for revenge,” said June Tangney, a psychology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “It comes from a desire to punish.”
The app’s inventor, Santa Monica real estate broker Dan Estes, said his motivation was something else entirely, which was fear for California’s future.
“You watch the news at night and you see pictures of the lakes that have dried up,” Estes said. “The next morning, you’re walking the dog and you see water all over the sidewalk, and the two just don’t reconcile.”
Drought’s been a constant in California. One in the mid-1800s devastated the cattle industry, and an extended dry spell in the 1930s stoked tensions between Lake Tahoe property owners and people downstream in Nevada who sent a steam shovel and a Reno police officer to cut a trench through the lake’s rim so more of its contents would head toward them.
A 2015 rendition is occurring in Madera County, near Fresno, where some residents are using irrigation tubing to steal water from neighbors. “It’s become a very valuable commodity,” said Madera County District Attorney David Linn, who recently set up a water-crime task force to investigate such thefts, including from fire hydrants.
This drought is among the most severe in California history. Mountain snowpack, which provides about 30 percent of the state’s water, is the lowest since 1950. Precipitation has been scarce, and 2014 set a high temperature record.
In Sacramento, California’s capital, consumption is supposed to fall 28 percent through February. Fines for failing to adhere to rules start at $50 and go up to $1,000. Violators can avoid paying by attending water school, which consists of a one-hour class on the benefits of low-flow sprinkler heads and drought-friendly landscaping.
State government is doing its part. The untended lawn surrounding the Capitol has turned brown. A sign stuck in the dirt says, “Californians Don’t Waste.”