LOS ANGELES — The trail of evidence streamed down a driveway and trickled down a street in the hilly Silver Lake neighborhood.
It’s 10:30 a.m. on a scorching July day, and Rick Silva is on the case. Wearing a fluorescent yellow vest, he charged up the hill — clipboard, notebook and pamphlets in hand — and knocked on the door. The culprit is quickly found: Sprinklers are dousing a steep slope in the back, sending a stream of precious water down the street.
The resident is a tenant who promises to alert his landlord.
Call Silva a drought buster, conservation expert or water cop (not a favored term). Whatever the title, his job is to educate Angelenos to save water and fine them if they don’t during a historic drought blanketing California.
“We go in the field to investigate complaints,” said Silva, who has become a rock star of sorts as media clamor for ride-alongs with the man who, at least until next week, was the only one to police water use by the 3.8 million people serviced by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Even late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel wants to do a skit with him.
“Before, we’d get 50 complaints a week,” said Silva, of calls flooding a complaint hotline. “Since last Tuesday, we get 50 a day.”
Sprinkler busters in demand
The sudden burst of interest was sparked after the decision by the California Water Resources Control Board on July 15 to approve fines of up to $500 a day for people who waste water outdoors — running sprinklers daily and during the hottest daytime hours, washing cars without a shutoff nozzle and hosing down sidewalks and driveways.
However, it may come as a surprise to many that “we’ve had water conservation since 2009,” Silva said. “We never lifted it, and I don’t think we’re ever going to lift it.”
Most cities have had restrictions on the books for years, but the severity of a third consecutive year of drought has upped the ante. Water cops are in high demand in water districts across California as more agencies beef up enforcement. This Monday he will have three additional full-time employees joining the LADWP’s Water Conservation Response Unit.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District — which includes the cities of Richmond, Berkeley and Alameda — added two people to its conservation staff this month to ensure residents follow the recommendation to water lawns no more than twice a week.
“They’re out and about all day long. And yesterday our reps saw watering in the middle of the day and talked to [the homeowners] about why it’s not a good thing,” said spokeswoman Abby Figueroa earlier this week. “There’s always ongoing conservation, since 2008.”
In February the district instituted a 10 percent voluntary cutback and met its goal through June 30.
“We’ve had three days a week of watering since 1991,” said Kim Loeb, Visalia’s natural resource conservation manager. “That’s normal for Visalia.” But the city implemented a Stage 4 water emergency in April. Watering is allowed three times a week from June through September, twice a week in May and October and once a week in November, December, March and April, and there’s absolutely no watering allowed in January and February.
Three part-time staffers — the third was added in May — educate people and enforce the ordinance. Under Stage 4, first offense gets a warning. A second within 12 months comes with a $100 fine. And a third is $200. Additional citations are a hefty $500.
“We do have patrols through the city at different times of the day and night, and we also receive a lot of calls,” Loeb said. “Through June, we issued 1,225 notices of violations and 33 [second offense] citations. That number is going to go up. The overwhelming majority are people just not paying attention to their automatic sprinklers.”
Yes, #Droughtshaming is a popular Twitter hashtag for chastising water wasters on social media. A recent post:
And, yes, hotlines set up by water agencies get thousands of calls from anonymous tattlers with tips that water cops have to chase. In Los Angeles, reports of water waste can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. And they pour in. From 2009 to 2012, the agency received 30,000 reports. Of those, 9,000 got warning tickets, but 300 did not heed those warnings and were fined up to $400 on the third postwarning offense.
The city’s water use is down 17 percent since 2009. There was an uptick of 2.4 percent in water use from May 2013 to May this year, but temperatures were 8 degrees higher this year, said LADWP spokeswoman Michelle Vargas.
“We reduced water use 17 percent since 2007,” she said, from 156 gallons a day per capita to 129 gallons a day for all residential and business customers (89 gallons for residential). Los Angeles uses less water per capita than any other U.S. city with more than 1 million people.
A survey by the Public Policy Institute out this week showed that the state’s continuing drought worries the majority of Californians and that they want government action to address it. The poll found that 75 percent of the 1,705 California adults surveyed and 70 percent of likely voters favor their “local water district making it mandatory for residents to reduce their water use.” The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percent.
On the beat
As Silva drove around the Echo Park and Silver Lake neighborhoods, he spotted gardeners watering in the hot sun. He pulled over and chatted with them in Spanish. “It’s tough for them, I know, because they work between 9 and 4 [when watering is banned],” he said.
He loves to talk to gardeners because each can have 50 clients. So talking to one gets the word out to 50 more. “It’s very effective,” Silva said.
Across the street was a gold-star example of what water conservation can mean: a hilly front yard covered with drought-resistant, green succulent plants instead of a grassy lawn. Homeowner Robert Lanz, a retired social worker who now heads a nonprofit music group, Giving Music, said he was the third generation of his family to live in the lovely home, built in 1928. He replaced the grass in the front and keeps 550-gallon barrels in the back to collect rain — when it rains — which he uses to water potted plants.
“The lawn required more upkeep and tons of water,” he said. “In L.A., we live in a desert. People get it.”
At another house, on Lucile Avenue in Silver Lake, sprinklers were going full blast, watering the enclosure more than anything on the ground. Silva jumped out of his car and talked with the gardeners, who promptly turned off the water. A picture of the offense was quickly snapped for the record. He explained to them the dos and don’ts and recommended ways to water more effectively, including setting sprinklers to go off in two or three shorter cycles to let the ground absorb the water rather than let it evaporate or run down the street.
“That was three strikes,” said Silva of this particular infraction. “They were watering on the wrong day [odd- and even-numbered addresses are assigned different days] at the wrong hour, and there was runoff.”
So, does Silva not like to be called a water cop?
“I don’t hate it,” he said. “I know it’s part of my job.”