California Officials Aren’t Following Own Call for Water Conservation

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Riverside Councilman Mike Soubirous’ 1-acre lot has flowering shrubs and a weeping willow. He has used more than a million gallons of water in a year. (Stuart Palley/The Center for Investigative Reporting)

RIVERSIDE – Mike Soubirous is a prodigious water user, pumping more than 1 million gallons per year at his lushly landscaped home on a hot, windy, Southern California hilltop.

Soubirous also is a member of the Riverside City Council, and one of his jobs in that position is to make decisions for the Riverside's water utility. In July, Soubirous voted with the rest of his council colleagues to impose tough new water conservation rules in this desert city of 317,000.

Yet as California’s drought worsened from 2012 to 2013, Soubirous consumed enough water to supply eight California households -- more than any other water official in the state.

Soubirous knows he should cut his water use to set a good example, he told The Center for Investigative Reporting. But he has a one-acre lot with cascades of flowering shrubs and a weeping willow tree, and summer temperatures hit 100 degrees. Conservation isn’t that simple, he said.

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“Do I have to sell my house to set that example, or do I have to just abolish all my shrubs?” Soubirous asked. “I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how I can reduce my water rate.”

Like Soubirous, many of the local officials urging the public to save water during California’s crippling drought actually are profligate water users themselves, a CIR investigation has found.

Water bills for most Californians are confidential. But bills for officials who set water rates and policies are public under the state’s open records law. CIR obtained more than two years’ worth for the elected and appointed officials who oversee 22 of the state’s biggest water agencies – about 150 officials in all. The bills show that in 2013, nearly half of those officials used more water than the typical California household.

And water officials tended not to cut back as the drought persisted. Even as their agencies scolded ratepayers on conservation, 60 percent of these officials used more water in 2013 than they had in 2012, records show.

Some officials used extraordinary amounts.

In addition to Soubirous, two other officials -- a Fresno city councilman and a member of Riverside’s utilities board -- each pumped more than 1 million gallons in a single year during the drought, records show.

Eight other officials used more than 1,100 gallons a day in 2013. That’s triple the state’s average. Among them was Randy Record, chairman of the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which recently launched an advertising blitz to persuade 19 million residents in the region to save water.

Fifteen additional officials used double the statewide rate. One was Ashley Swearengin, Republican candidate for state controller and incumbent mayor of Fresno, where residents are allowed to water lawns twice a week now and not at all in winter.

As the drought has worsened, local agencies have kept up a steady public relations drumbeat, urging Californians to take shorter showers, limit car washing and even tear out their lawns in the name of conservation.

This summer, the state told local agencies to enforce tough new rules: Ratepayers can face $500 fines for offenses such as permitting excess runoff from outdoor watering or cleaning sidewalks with hoses. Around the state, according to news reports, neighbors have begun reporting neighbors for wasting water.

When contacted, some officials bemoaned how much they were spending on water and blamed undetected sprinkler leaks, overzealous gardeners or heavy use of the family swimming pool. All said conservation is important. All vowed to do better.

But not all are following their own water rules. Last month in Riverside, an NBC Los Angeles crew collaborating with CIR on this story witnessed sprinklers running seven nights in a row at Soubirous’ home.

Yet in July, Soubirous joined the council in forbidding watering more than four times a week. When asked about it, he acknowledged he might have unintentionally overwatered.

Trent Orr of the Earthjustice environmental law firm in San Francisco said the officials were “blatantly defying” the conservation ethos they impose on ordinary citizens.

“You should be leading by example,” Orr said, “not telling the little people you regulate that they need to tighten their belts while you proceed as if nothing had happened and in fact use more water.”

A 2011 study commissioned by the state Department of Water Resources found that occupants of a single-family home in California use, on average, 361 gallons per day -- or nearly 132,000 gallons a year.

North and south, Californians use about the same amount of water indoors, the study found. But Southern Californians use far more outdoors to keep their landscaping lush and swimming pools full. Overall, Northern California households use about 295 gallons per day, while Southern Californians use 523 gallons, according to the study.

CIR’s analysis found a similar variance: Water-guzzling officials were concentrated in the drier, thirstier parts of the state – the Central Valley and hot inland areas in Southern California. Bay Area officials used far less: 255 gallons per day – slightly below the Northern California average.

In the Central Valley, where summers are scorching, officials included in the CIR analysis averaged 855 gallons per day in 2013. The Central Valley’s average use was less than 565 gallons.Because cities in the region have been slow to install residential water meters, bills weren’t available for many officials.

Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines said a horrendous malfunction in his sprinkler system made him a million-gallon user in 2013, the first year that water meters kept track in his west Fresno neighborhood.

Baines’ first metered bill showed he used 4,000 gallons a day -- about 11 times the state average. The city, which says it has the lowest water rates in California, charged him $182.43 for that water.

One year and 1.24 million gallons later, Baines finally solved what he called a “freak situation” involving his sprinklers: In the middle of the night, water would stream from defective sprinkler heads, flooding the yard. The ground became so saturated that a sinkhole opened up behind his house, he said.

After repairs, Baines used 149 gallons per day in March. But the memory still rankles.

“Well, you know, I apologize,” he said. “Clearly, I am not a model of water usage.”

Nobody in the valley rivaled Baines. Swearengin, Fresno’s mayor, averaged 850 gallons per day in 2013. She didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In Southern California, water officials averaged 541 gallons per day, exceeding both the state and regional rates. Officials in coastal cities tended to have far lower water bills than those in hotter inland areas.

Riverside Councilman Soubirous was the only official to use 1 million gallons in successive years, but he was not the only mega-user in the Inland Empire city, which has outlawed watering between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m.

Andrew Walcker of the city Board of Public Utilities used 1 million gallons in 2012. In September 2012, he pumped 6,000 gallons per day – enough water for 16 households.

Walcker’s two-acre property once was a grapefruit grove. Starting 18 months ago, he said he began a landscape makeover, installing a state-of-the-art sprinkler system and pulling out 12,000 square feet of lawn.

Water bills show Walcker’s use dropped by 35 percent in 2013 and is on a pace to drop 50 percent this year. Nevertheless, in June, he used more than 1,500 gallons per day, triple the Southern California average.

Big water bills also prevailed on the board of the Coachella Valley Water District, which supplies desert resort cities and golf courses near Palm Springs. John Powell Jr., president of the Coachella Valley board, used 1,800 gallons per day in 2013 at his home on an Indian Wells golf course, slightly more than in 2012.

In an interview, Powell blamed his landscaper for favoring a green lawn over water conservation. Recently, Powell said he took drastic action: He locked up his irrigation timer to prevent overwatering. He said he also replaced lawns with rock and artificial turf. He expects big savings. But through Aug. 27, his water use was down 4 percent from 2013, records show.

Also struggling to conserve water is Randy Record, a Riverside County rancher and local water district official who was elected chairman of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California in May.

For years, the consortium of 26 Los Angeles-area water agencies has promoted water conservation. Now, facing cutbacks from Northern California, it has redoubled its efforts. In May, Record and other Metropolitan Water District officials held a news conference to warn that if voluntary conservation measures fall short, water rationing would begin.

At his ranch house on the outskirts of San Jacinto, Record has a history of letting the water flow: In both 2012 and 2013, he used enough water to supply four families, with a summertime spike. But this year, in the name of conservation, he told CIR that he has dramatically cut back, turning off the sprinklers for a “big part of our lawn.”

The result: In August, Record’s water bill was half what it was a year ago. But he still used 1,300 gallons a day – more than twice the Southern California average.

In the Bay Area, where summer nights can be cool and foggy, local water officials don’t use much water: 70 percent were under the state average in 2013.

The region’s biggest user was Martin Koller, vice president of the board of the Alameda County Water District. He used 604 gallons per day, double the regional rate. Koller said nine members of his extended family live with him, and his wife operates a day care center for 14 children out of the home.

“That’s taxed our water usage,” he said.

Otherwise, Bay Area officials dominated the list of water misers among their peers. The most miserly official in California was Eric Mar of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, who lives in a condominium in the Inner Richmond district, part of the city’s fog belt. He used 45 gallons a day in 2013 – about enough to fill a bathtub.

San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee was not far behind: He used 53 gallons a day at his Glen Park home.

The mayor believes “conservation is a way of life,” said spokeswoman Christine Falvey, and he’s often out of town on official travel.

As a result, Lee had some extraordinarily low bills. In July, he used 24 gallons a day – enough to wash a load of clothes. In March 2013, he used 12 gallons a day – the equivalent of one six-minute shower.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee. This story was produced by The Center for Investigative Reporting, an independent, nonprofit newsroom based in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more, visit cironline.org.

Lance Williams can be reached at lwilliams@cironline.org. Katharine Mieszkowski can be reached at kmieszkowski@cironline.org.