California drought: How the Los Angeles area is conserving water

Imagine having outdoor watering cut off completely and the water delivery to your house reduced to a mere trickle – enough to get it out of the tap, to flush and to take a weak shower.

For about 20 water wasters in western Los Angeles County, this is their reality, with flow reductions of what was once 50 gallons per minute down to 1 gallon per minute.

“This is basically a deterrent for consistent water wasters within our service area,” said Mike McNutt, spokesman for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District that serves communities in western Los Angeles County. “And when I say consistent water wasters, what I mean is after four times that a customer who exceeds 150% of their water budget, they are then in line to receive a flow restriction device on their meter.”

Homes are seen from Las Virgenes Reservoir in Westlake Village, Calif., On Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The community, one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the greater Los Angeles area, is served by the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Since the beginning of June, about 20 of the devices have been installed at households that simply have refused to work with the district, which instituted a 50% reduction in outdoor water budgets for its 22,000 accounts beginning in May.

“We provide them ample opportunities to work with us before it gets installed. We send letters, emails, put on door tags, even voicemails and text messages, ”McNutt said. “Literally every possible thing that you can think of to let them know that they need to contact the district to work with us to start reducing their water consumption. If they don’t do that, after all that stuff, then we’ll go ahead and install them as a last ditch effort. We are really serious about this. ”

Interestingly, he said the devices – which he believes aren’t being used anywhere else in California or the country – have generally been received by district patrons in a positive manner.

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Cason Gilmer, a senior field customer service representative from the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, installs an advanced water metering system in Agoura Hills, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The wealthy enclave along the Santa Monica Mountains that is haven for celebrities has taken aggressive steps to try to limit water use during California’s drought, including lowering the thresholds for fines for those who go over their “water budgets” and threatening to add restrictors to pipes that limit water flow to customers who repeatedly fail to conserve.

“The majority of our customers are within their water budget and are applauding us for taking this action,” he said. “It is not lost on us that we are the first to do this … they see themselves taking steps and others who are not.”

The dire drought

Close to 44% of California is in extreme drought, while another 12% of the state is in the worst category of drought, exceptional.

McNutt’s district gets its sole source of water via a pipeline from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which relies on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada for a population of more than 6 million people.

That parent district slashed its water deliveries to its member agencies to 5% of what is normal and limited outdoor watering to once a week.

McNutt said 70% of the district’s water consumption is for outdoor irrigation, so targeting reductions in that use was a natural option.

Still, even with the restrictions, the indoor and outdoor water budgets and pretty aggressive tiered water rates – the more you use the more you pay – some households in affluent areas have ignored the calls for conservation, McNutt said.

“Even when we have issued penalties, often times we have customers who have the means to pay the higher water prices, and you know, that’s just not going to work with the dire drought situation that we have now.”

In Calabasas, where the district is headquartered, the median price of a home is nearly $ 1.6 million and it serves multiple other affluent communities as well.

Flagrant water users can avoid getting the flow restriction device installed if they sign a commitment form with the district pledging to take certain steps to reduce consumption, including the installation of a weather-based outdoor irrigation control device and participation in a WaterSmart Portal to monitor their use. Abusers can get the device removed if they sign the commitment form.

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The water glistens in the sunlight at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s reservoir in Westlake Village, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2022. The Las Virgenes Municipal Water District’s approach is one example of how water districts are pushing Californians to save as the drought continues despite a wet start to winter. Las Virgenes is installing a new metering system that gives people a real-time look at their water use. It’s also lowering the threshold for penalizing wasters and threatening to restrict the flow of water for households that don’t get their water use back under control. (AP Photo / Jae C. Hong)

Jae C. Hong, Associated Press

Water equity

McNutt said the district has been working hard to get its customers to reimagine their relationship with water.

“We need to educate, inform and change the mindset of our customers when it comes to their relationship with water,” he said. “What is aesthetically pleasing? Is it that green lawn versus climate appropriate landscaping? Is it that important to have that lush green lawn when it is taking water out of the same bucket that somebody else, somewhere else, might be (needing) for drinking water because we are all sharing this common resource? ”

The water reductions, the once-a-week watering restrictions, the state’s 55-gallon per person per day conservation goal and even the flow reduction devices are short-term fixes to what McNutt describes as a long-term problem. At the district level, the target they have to meet is 80 gallons per person per day.

“We really don’t have a long-term water source as it stands right now,” he said, pointing to the variability and unreliability of the West’s mountain snowpack in past years.

“The reality is if we don’t get 6.6 million people (in the State Water Project) to work together to meet these conservation targets, then most likely as early as September there is going to be a complete ban on outdoor watering, period. ”

Utah and the drought

Rachel Shilton, river basin planning manager for the Utah Division of Water Resources, noted the unique situation of California – its drought being worse than Utah’s and its population in Los Angeles County three times that of the entire state of Utah.

“So the water restrictions there for a single county have huge impacts if people aren’t following them.”

Shilton said she “applauds” the district for taking the approach it is – keeping water flowing in the pipes and tackling outdoor water usage with its flow reduction device.

“I think that kind of enforcement is what it will take to have, in some cases, some real serious restrictions and reduction in water use.”

Utah has a statewide water conservation goal of reducing consumption by 16% by 2030. That is on top of a 25% reduction in consumption that was achieved in 2025.

Shilton said the state’s water conservation target could be more aggressive.

“But so far, I mean, we have not shown, demonstrated an appetite to go more aggressive as a population. … So yeah, certainly we could be more aggressive and the drought has shown us that we can be, but we haven’t demonstrated that we are able to or that we want to commit to that long term. So conservation actions are long-term behavior changes and drought reactions are perceived as ‘I can do this for a little bit, but I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life.’ ”

Shilton said using a flow restriction device to stop excessive watering would not be in the purview of the state, but up to individual water providers. Like that water district in California, about 70% of Utah’s municipal and industrial use of water is used on outdoor landscaping.

Linda Townes Cook, public information manager for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District, said the district used its own brand of persuasion on its member cities to get them to adopt new water efficiency standards, or pay higher rates. A half-dozen cities got on board, as well as the district’s retail area.

She doesn’t see a flow restriction device anytime soon in Utah.

“I do not think we are there yet. It is an extreme measure, but California has circumstances that are more dire than us. I could see it decades down the road, but I don’t see it anytime in the future. But what a way to get people’s attention. ”

Saving water, saving for the future

Like Southern California, northern Utah is on the one day a week outdoor watering schedule.

Last year drought galvanized water savings in many communities in Utah. The city of Layton saved 689 million gallons of culinary water, according to spokesman Steve Garside.

He was intrigued by the California district’s use of the flow restriction device.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do if you have people who aren’t cooperating. You have to take those difficult stances. It is a resource that has to be shared and everyone needs access to it. ”

He said Layton is in a good position because in addition to the water it gets from the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District, it has its own wells.

The city worked closely with the district last year and shaved its own allotment so it could get through this year. It is also on a tiered water rate system in which the more water that is used, the pricier it gets.

But like McNutt, Garside stressed that ultimately it is behavioral shifts that will mean more water in the system and thus more water for the next generation.

“I hope people don’t take their foot off the gas and keep these conservation efforts going. That will be the key. ”

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