(CNN) — Beautiful, cloudless blue skies over perfectly manicured lawns present an ugly reality for the California Virgins Municipal Water District as it grapples with the historic mega-drought plaguing the western United States.
Despite the lack of significant rain in months, the carpet of lush green grass likely means homeowners aren’t getting the message about the dire need to conserve water, or are ignoring warnings.
But now, the water district has found a way to get customers’ attention. When customer service representatives work in the different neighborhoods, they keep an eye out for any water restriction violations. And for repeat offenders, officials are trying something new: adding water restrictors to pipes, drastically reducing the home’s water supply.
Lawns of the Rich and Famous
The district covers some of the most sought after real estate in Southern California, northwest of Hollywood and Beverly Hills, including the areas along the Ventura Freeway.
Las Virgenes imports all of its water from the State Water Project, which channels runoff from the northern Sierra Nevada mountains to southern California. However, at the end of winter, snow cover was only 4% of normal, forcing unprecedented restrictions. Las Virgenes only receives 5% of the requested water supplies this year.
“We have to supplement the water we’ve been getting from the State Water Project,” said Mike McNutt, public affairs and communications manager for Las Vírgenes, adding that the district draws water from its Las Vírgenes reservoir, its reservoir for water needs. emergency, just south of Thousand Oaks.
At this time, McNutt confirmed that it is 72% full; at full capacity, it’s a six-month supply. “We had to take significant steps to reduce water use to ensure long-term water reliability, which means moving into the fall and winter,” McNutt said.
Nearly all of California is experiencing severe or worse drought (the top three designations), according to the latest US drought monitor. Several severely poor years of rain and snow have marked a 20-year megadrought that scientists say is being driven by warmer, drier conditions brought on by climate change.
When the grass gets greener and it’s not a good thing
In light of the shortage and prolonged drought, Las Virgenes has ordered residents to cut watering of their outdoor facilities by half, as required by the unprecedented order from its distributor, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. .
Outdoor irrigation accounts for 70% of most customers’ water use, the water district says, so reducing irrigation can have a big conservation impact.
“They’re only allowed to water one day a week outside, Tuesday and Thursday, depending on whether your address ends with an odd or even number,” McNutt explained. On top of that, each sprinkler set can only be on for eight minutes. “Maybe it helps keep some of the grass alive if people want to keep grass, but they’re brown.”
CNN accompanied Las Virgenes’ lead field customer service representative, Cason Gilmer, as he searched for wasted water. As he and his team drive through the coverage area, they keep an eye out for water where it shouldn’t be — on sidewalks and running down streets into storm drains — or outside irrigation when it should be off.
“When he’s in front of us and the sprinklers come on at noon on Wednesday, he’s an easy target for us,” Gilmer said, noting that most customers seem to be doing their part now. “This street in particular was very, very green two months ago.”
Throughout the trip, the number of houses with vibrant green grass was outnumbered by brown grass. Some lawns have been replaced with artificial grass and others have been painted green.
Neighbors can rat out others, including celebrities
If someone from the water district sees water waste, they can leave a tag on the door so the landlord knows they are not in compliance and what to do. They also send advertisements. The water district also fines abusers, resulting in charges that can reach thousands of dollars depending on the size of the violation.
But the prosperous paradise of Calabasas, within the territory of the water district, is home to several very wealthy people. Some of those household names — celebrities, musicians, and athletes — have been using far more water than they should, according to recent data.
People like Kevin Hart, Dwyane Wade and, according to the Los Angeles Times, Kourtney Kardashian, as well as her sister Kim.
Neither responded to CNN’s request for comment. However, in a statement to the Times, Wade and his wife, actress Gabrielle Union, said they “have taken drastic steps to reduce water use in accordance with new city guidelines since we moved into our home.”
The Virgins said that all those celebrities are on good terms now.
“Those specific celebrities have worked very closely with the district. They want to do the right thing … to achieve a much more efficient level of water use,” McNutt said.
And when the fines aren’t enough, it’s time to bring the restrictor
With so many wealthy residents, Las Vírgenes has learned that some customers respond more to losing water than losing money.
“We try to get public education and notifications and stuff about the drought, but a lot of people pull the banner ads. They ignore them,” said Gilmer, who created a simple but effective way to get users’ attention gallon by gallon at a time. “I call it a bit as a last resort.”
The water restrictor is a thin circle of food-grade stainless steel with a small hole in the middle, which fits snugly into the offending customer’s water meter, which technicians can usually access from the street since the meters are owned. from District.
“This particular restrictor will give you about a gallon per minute. Normally a three-quarter inch gauge is 25 to 30 gallons per minute. So at 25 to 30 gallons per minute, you can run your dishwasher and your sink and have someone in the shower and maybe even have the sprinkler on and no one knows the difference,” Gilmer explained. “With the restrictor on…your sink works fine. Your shower works fine. But the irrigation won’t work. It just won’t deliver the amount of water that’s demanded.”
Gilmer even tried it out in his own home to see what it was like to have his water restricted.
“The big part was that you can’t do two things at once. So if I was in the shower and my wife was trying to do the dishes, my shower was over. I just walked out,” Gilmer said with a faint smile. “My wife demanded that she remove it after a day and a half.”
After a customer uses more than 150% of their water allowance four times, they will be in line to have the flow restrictor installed. Las Vírgenes says some 1,600 connections, or just over 7% of its customer base, fall into this category.
“It’s not meant to be punitive,” says McNutt. “He intends to tell people…this drought is incredibly serious and what we need you to do is your part.”
McNutt added that Las Virgenes is leading by example in California, as it “uses these flow restriction devices for conservation purposes.”
“We’re leading this charge on how can we get people to stop using so much water as climate change progresses.”