In a affluent enclave along the Santa Monica Mountains that is a haven for celebrities, residents now face the more dire consequences of wasting water.
The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, northwest of Los Angeles, hopes to spur water savings by making it easier to fine families for exceeding their allotted “water budgets” and threatening to reduce water flow to customers who repeatedly fail to conserve water.
The area provides a bold example of how local authorities in drought-stricken California are trying to get people to use less water, voluntarily if possible but with the threat of punishment if they don’t comply. Las Virgenes officials hope their approach will be a wake-up call for residents of affluent neighborhoods, where most of the water goes toward outdoor use such as lawns and swimming pools.
“What we’re trying to do is conserve water now so we can augment the limited supplies we have,” said Dave Pederson, district general manager.
California is feeling the effects of climate change. It has endured drought conditions for most of the past decade and during that time has endured the most destructive and deadly wildfires. After two exceptionally dry years that left the state’s reservoirs at or near record lows, a series of recent winter storms have improved conditions. But most of the state is still suffering from severe drought.
In July, Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom asked residents to cut 15% of their water use, but it’s only down 6% as of November. And the state’s water authority last month imposed a series of moderate restrictions, such as waiting two days after a storm hit water prairie. It may take more significant steps later in the year if the drought intensifies.
In California, local counties provide water service, regulate use, and enforce penalties. Las Virgenes serves about 75,000 people in Agoura Hills, Westlake Village, Calabasas and Hidden Hills, an area that in recent years has attracted a growing number of celebrities, including Kim Kardashian and Will Smith.
Like much of the interior of Southern California, Las Virginia rarely sees rain outside of the winter months, and during summer the average high temperature is in the mid-90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s). It’s richer than most places — a typical Calabasas home sells for more than $1.5 million, according to online real estate marketplace Zillow.
Despite calls to conserve, water customers there ramped up their use in August and September, then exceeded the 15% reduction target in October before missing the target again in November. Collectively, customers have significantly exceeded their water budgets last year.
One of the biggest problems in the area is “the ability of wealthy clients to consistently significantly exceed their water budgets because money is not a deterrent,” said District spokesperson Michael McNutt. He declined to reveal the names of the largest water users in the region.
About 70% of the water in the area goes to outdoor uses, and many are willing to pay a higher water bill to keep lawns, lush gardens, and ponds full.
“There appears to have been a lackluster response to the water emergency,” said Calabasas Mayor Mary Sue Maurer, who believes restricting water flow could provide a much-needed wake-up call for some people.
Because of the dry conditions, California regulators said in December that they would not make any water from the state’s supply beyond what is needed for necessities like drinking and bathing. That may change in the coming months, but the provisions will likely not go up significantly unless the winter is very rainy. The uncertainty is especially stressful for Las Virgenes, which gets about 80% of its water from the state’s supply.
The region’s new approach to stimulating conservation is carrot and portion:
The agency is installing an advanced water metering system that will show customers in real time how much water they are using. It’s designed to help people detect when they’re over the limit and adjust their behavior, rather than waiting until the monthly bill arrives to realize they’ve overused. They will be installed district-wide by April except for customers who have pulled out, which few have done.
Each home has a “water budget,” something many California water districts use, based on population and property size. Starting this month, customers will face fines if they exceed their monthly budget by 150%. Previously, the minimum fine started at 200%, and about 15% of area customers were fined, Pederson said. People only get a warning the first time they go over budget.
But fines are not the harshest punishment. Households can be fined three times for restricting the flow of their water system, slowing what comes out of their taps or hoses to a few drops. Previously, the region could add the restrictions after five fines but it never did.
Even when the state ordered it, Mahdi Nemati, an assistant professor at the University of California, Riverside, said wealthy Californians did not keep as much as others did during the recent drought. He works with water agencies on water conservation programs but not with Las Vergenes.
He said Las Virgenes’ approach to advanced metering, fines and the risk of flow restriction stands out among more than 400 medium to large water agencies in the state. Only a few dozen counties have sophisticated metering systems because they are too expensive to install, and few use penalties against residents who overuse them. Instead, many areas increase the cost of water as customers use more.
Such a method, he said, changes behavior for some but is not very effective in changing it for the wealthy. Las Vergenes also uses such a structure, then adds penalties at the top.
It’s rare for an area to be threatened by flow restrictions, which are usually reserved for customers who don’t constantly pay their bills. Neamaty anticipates that Las Virginia policy will invite lawsuits.
“The agency is very brave if they really want to do it,” he said.
Pederson, the general manager, said Las Virgenes doesn’t want to be overwhelmed with fines or restrictions. Fines start at $2.50 and go up to $10 per 748 gallons (2,831 liters) above the 150% threshold. The average home in the area uses 19,448 gallons (73,618 liters) of water per month, most of which is outside.
District officials acknowledge that many customers are staying within their water budgets.
“Our system helps us get the message across to the people who are really the problem, and frankly,” Pederson said.