Drought shaming: Are Californians taking more ownership of conservation?

Californians have started publicly calling out their neighbors for wasting water. Celebrities, in particular, are finding themselves in the drought-shaming cross hairs.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
Water runs off from a sprinkler in the Mount Olympus, a neighborhood in the Hollywood Hills area of Los Angeles, April 8, 2015. State regulators are naming and shaming local water departments that have let water-wasters slide, and they're forcing them to slash water use by as much as a third.

Tim McCullough was passing through the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles when he noticed a lawn full of sprinkler heads spraying water into the street and inundating a driveway.

Finding no one home to notify, he pulled out his iPhone 5s, snapped a photo, and filed a “moderate” waste report using the free “DroughtShame” app.

“No one wants to be a snitch, but this is just grossly unfair to the neighborhood,” says the actor and substitute teacher.

With the state entering its fourth year of drought, legislators are increasingly turning to draconian measures to reduce wasteful consumption. In April, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown evoked executive order to institute the state’s first-ever mandatory water restrictions. More recently, he suggested imposing a $10,000 fine for wasting water.

On the ground, many residents have adopted their own punitive measure: drought shaming.

Not only are there special hotlines for neighbors to call to report abuse and infractions, but residents have started publicly calling out water-wasters – especially celebrities – on social media using the Twitter hashtag #DroughtShaming. Water analysts say the technique spotlights some of the most flagrant abusers – and heightens public awareness of the problem.

“Every little bit will help, and celebrities play an important role in setting people’s priorities and raising awareness,” says Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif. “As water becomes scarcer this summer, we will all need to do our own part to conserve water, and our celebrities tend to have large properties and thus the opportunity to make significant reductions in their use.”

In recent weeks, Jessica Simpson, Barbara Streisand, Jennifer Lopez, and Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have all come under Twitter fire for their lavish lawns. 

Part of the outrage at celebrity water usage is probably grounded in a wounded sense of equity. It may be difficult for residents who are recycling dishwater and racing through showers to swallow the fact that irrigation water appears to be flowing freely within celebrity compounds.

But British émigré Trevor Duncan says he has noticed for years that Californians have a very specific kind of American arrogance around such issues.

“I’m convinced that because of the kind of celebrity entitlement you see around Los Angeles, their kind of abuse won’t desist until it comes with a social disadvantage – until they are named and shamed in innumerable ways, from hashtags to stickers or graffiti,” Mr. Duncan says.

Part of the new restrictive environment is that entire communities are being asked to cut back total usage by huge percentages – as much as 36 percent – and so infractions are seen and felt by more people, heightening the social leverage.

Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, which supplies 65,000 residents in Los Angeles County, says for it to meet a 36 percent reduction, its clients would have to make a 50 percent reduction in outdoor water use. Since the district encompasses many communities with celebrity residents, the outing of such celebrities has become a much more common tactic.

Not everyone, however, sees the practice as constructive. Some social media users have pushed back, citing the practice as a distraction from what they see as more pressing water conservation issues such as the amount of water used in beef production and the bottling of California water. 

For John Harris, whose family has been farming in the southern Central Valley town of Coalinga since 1937, drought shaming is something of a diversion from constructive debate about water rights.

“I hate to see so much focus on shaming. It reminds me of a witch hunt,” Mr. Harris says. “What people are missing is all the water that gets wasted in some of the so-called environmental uses. Billions of gallons of water have been used to try to save the delta smelt that is almost extinct anyway. More focus should be on more water storage, more efforts for desalination, less onerous restrictions of the management of water in the Delta.”

Still others see the spotlight on megastars as a valuable tool to bring attention to the issue, given how celebrity-driven American popular culture has become.

“This had to happen. The price of celebrity is that people will pay attention to you,” says Jay Lund, director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis. “It is useful in helping the general public pay attention to California's current water scarcity.”

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