Drought versus dollars: California's wealthiest balk at water restrictions

As water restrictions tighten in the face of California's ongoing drought, wealthy communities resist letting their lawns go brown.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
In this May 27, 2015 photo, a lawn is irrigated at home in Sacramento, Calif., 2015. Many residents of wealthy communities continue watering their lawns, despite statewide mandates to decrease consumption during the drought, which is in its fourth year.

A wealthy Californian recently stopped watering the lawn, removed all the flowers, and made plans to replace them with drought-resistant vegetation.

The result? A citation from the homeowners’ association, demanding the household resume watering the grass and replant the flowers. Drought-resistant vegetation was rejected for violating the community’s "theme of luxury homes."

When the resident did not bend, the association imposed fines for noncompliance, according to an anonymous letter published in Saturday's LA Times.

Apparently, nobody is above the fray in the battle for water. California's statewide drought has persisted for four years and resulted in severe losses, including crops and livestock and 17,100 lost agriculture jobs in 2014.

And now, state-mandated restrictions on water use are proving problematic for residents of upscale communities, too.

When residents have several acres of land to maintain, water conservation can be difficult. In the wealthy San Diego county enclave Rancho Santa Fe, where the median income is $189,000, some residents are openly rebelling against mandatory water conservation. The Washington Post reported that in April, after Gov. Jerry Brown demanded a 25 percent reduction in water use, Rancho Santa Fe consumption actually increased by 9 percent.

The state has responded by instituting the community’s first water rationing program, requiring top water users to cut consumption by 36 percent. Residents will now be allotted a certain amount of water for "basic indoor needs," and they will be charged extra for outdoor water use and fined for consumption in excess of their allotment, the Post reported.

Water bills in the area already average hundreds of dollars a month, but for many wealthy residents, green sprawling lawns and decorative fountains are worth the cost. Resident Steve Yuhas told the Post that those willing to pay for water were entitled to it.

"We pay significant property taxes based on where we live.… And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water," Mr. Yuhas said. He later added, "When we bought, we didn’t plan on getting a place that looks like we’re living in an African savanna." 

He's right that not all Californians use water equally: A recent UCLA study found that wealthy LA neighborhoods consume three times as much water as poorer ones.

"This disparity reflects different land uses, built densities, climates, and the vast differences in wealth.... [T]he top 5% earns over twelve times more than the bottom 20%," the report said.

Holly Manion, another Rancho Santa Fe resident, has traded in most of her three acres of turf in favor of drought-resistant succulent plants. She said she disagrees with the conservation-resistant mentality of residents like Yuhas.

"They aren’t being responsible," Ms. Manion told the Post. "They’re just thinking of their own lives."

Further upstate, other wealthy communities are also facing problems. The LA Times reported that Mountain House, an upscale San Joaquin community, is facing the loss of its only source of water – a rural irrigation district that fell under a recent state order curtailing water rights.

Mountain House will not run completely dry, since the state can allow just enough water to maintain "health and safety," said the local water board. Still, Rick Gilmore, general manager of Mountain House’s water supplier, said the situation could be "catastrophic."

"Some folks are going to feel the pain," Gilmore said.

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