Californians shame drought-flouting water wasters by naming them

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Frustrated by water waste, drought-sricken Californians are relying on a controversial means to get people to save water. They are shaming people who waste the precious resource by publicizing their names and photographs of their indiscreet water usage. It appears the tough tactic works better than anything else.

Four years into a historic drought, California has made a cult of water conservation, venerating unflushed toilets and fleeting showers as new virtues along with ripping out the last of its thirsty grass lawns.

That’s why outraged consumers in Los Angeles are calling for the scalp of an as-yet unnamed person who reportedly splashed out 44.7 million litres of water – enough for 90 households – over the course of a single year.

The drought flouter is one of 365 private water consumers who used more than 3.78 million litres each over 12 months from April 2014, according to a report published October 1 by the public media Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR).

By comparison, city data shows the average Los Angeles household uses 181,000 litres per year. German households use much less, an average 44,165 litres per year according to the national statistics agency DeStatis, in part because of differences in rainfall.

Nine of the top 10 private consumer scofflaws were in the ritzy and defiantly verdant Los Angeles enclaves of Bel-Air and Beverly Hills. That led the authors of the investigation to dub the list’s number-one most-wanted “the Wet Prince of Bel-Air,” in a play on the name of the 1990s sitcom starring Will Smith.

The report sparked a public outcry, led by an influential Los Angeles Times journalist, Steve Lopez. Lopez reported volunteer patrols were scouting the wealthy neighbourhoods for wet greenery and scouring satellite photos for clues and warned the culprits their time was running out.

“We’re going to get you sooner or later, so why not make this easy on yourself?” he wrote. “Drop the hose, drain the fountains and step out of the shadows.”

Drought shaming – a not-so-technical name for publicly fingering water wasters – has taken off since the state imposed mandatory water cutbacks April 1.

Since then, social media has spilled over with outraged reports of overzealous garden watering using the hashtag #droughtshaming. The state has encouraged tattling with a website, Save Water Report, where anonymous do-gooders can snitch on neighbours. An app, DroughtShame, assembles photo evidence of sprinklers and lawns into a geotagged rogue’s gallery of green.

Battle lines have been drawn over the morality of almond milk, which comes from famously thirsty trees grown mostly in California’s parched Central Valley agricultural region, and what material best replaces garden grass: plastic or rock.

Tabloid photographers have stalked celebrity compounds by helicopter on the hunt for excessive greenery. Barbra Streisand, through a spokesperson, in May apologized for her lush Malibu gardens and promised to tighten the taps, according to the New York Post.

“Public shaming … has been an effective tool to lower usage,” Tracy Quinn of the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defence Council told the Los Angeles Times.

At hearings amid a public outcry over the reports of water waste, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power told the city government that more than 4,600 warning letters to the top 1 per cent of water users had apparently gone unheeded.

“Clearly, not everyone is getting the message,” DWP manager Marty Adams told the Los Angeles City Council, according to a report by the CIR.

Now the utility has 30 days to come up with a plan to get them in line. Along with hefty fines and turning off service, it is reportedly considering drought shaming them – making their names public, despite state laws barring the release of customer information.

They would not be the first. On October 16, the East Bay Municipal Water District (EBMUD) near San Francisco outed its top water consumers, publishing their names under a new agency ordinance allowing fines and exposure for people exceeding limits by more than four times.

Topping the list were a former Chevron executive, a venture capitalist and baseball executive Billy Beane, whose life was the subject of the Brad Pitt film Moneyball.

A spokesperson for the EBMUD, Abby Figueroa, said the agency was committed to customer privacy and had released the names only in response to media requests under public records laws.

“We don’t believe drought shaming is the way to go,” she said, according to a report by NBC.

But it appeared to have worked. After a virtual public flogging, Beane apologized, saying he was “embarrassed and displeased” by his water use and that he would repair leaks in irrigation lines and a swimming pool, according to ABC News.

On Thursday, the EBMUD released 1,100 more names.

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