Wealth is most reliable predictor of water use in Los Angeles: Study

Michael Walsh

Lush lawns and vibrant trees suggest that some California households are dragging their feet when it comes to water conservation.

Wealthier neighborhoods in Los Angeles are less likely to cut back on their water use, according to experts. It appears some would rather keep their deep-green grass as beautiful as ever — even as California battles with the fourth year of its historic drought.

Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, oversaw Ph.D. student Caroline Mini's study of residential water consumption in the city of Los Angeles. Along with Terri Hogue, an engineering professor at Colorado School of Mines, they wanted to uncover what drives water use and which strategies curb it most effectively.

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - APRIL 03: A gardener cuts the lawn at a home on Greenway Dr. near Sunset Blvd. in Beverly Hills on April 3, 2015. Governor Jerry Brown issued an executive order, mandating that urban consumers statewide cut their water use 25 percent by the end of February, 2016. Under the plan, cities such as Beverly Hills will have to cut water use the most since they are among the state's heaviest per-capita water users. (Photo by Mel Melcon/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

 

“Wealth was the most reliable predictor of water use. The wealthy used more than three times the water of nonwealthy people,” she said in an interview with Yahoo News.

Pincetl and her team researched the issue with satellite imaging and data from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). Then they provided recommendations for the utility to more effectively enact policies that account for consumption patterns at a neighborhood level.

More than 50 percent of water use in the city of Los Angeles goes toward outdoor irrigation, according to Pincetl.

Affluent neighborhoods with luscious green lawns were less likely to turn off the sprinklers in the face of price hikes, she said.

“When rates went up by tier for water conservation, low-income people conserve more water — showing they are more price-sensitive to water rates than wealthy people,” Pincetl said.

The study shows varying clusters of usage patterns across the city based on income: Poorer neighborhoods near downtown showed less water use than the richer, northern sections of the city. The neighborhoods of Playa Vista and Venice are exceptions to this rule.

Pincetl says mandatory restrictions are the most effective method for reducing water usage in single-family households.

In July and August 2009, mandatory limits and higher prices in Los Angeles — implemented between 2007 and 2009 — had effectively reduced water use by 23 percent, according to the study. Voluntary restrictions, on the other hand, did not have a significant impact.

Periodically, heavy rainfall hits California, but not nearly often enough to offset the ongoing problems.

Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the first mandatory cuts in water use in the state’s history. Previous reductions were voluntary, but now towns and cities will need to reduce their water use by 25 percent.

The governor’s rations do not apply to California’s agricultural industry, which uses 80 percent of the state's water supply.

Brown says California’s farmers provide a valuable service with their water use and are not merely taking long showers or needlessly watering their lawns.

Last fall, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti similarly issued an executive directive to reduce water use by 20 percent by 2017. He also wants a 50 percent reduction in water that LADWP purchases by 2024.

"We are making the drought a top priority because this record drought threatens our economy and environment at crisis levels,” Garcetti said in a release.

On Saturday, The New York Times questioned whether the state’s apparently endless population growth — spurred by dreams of Hollywood, Silicon Valley, beautiful beaches, comfortable weather and laid-back lifestyles — could continue unabated given the current predicament.

California’s population has more than doubled since 1960, from 15.7 million people to roughly 38.8 million today.

“Mother Nature didn’t intend for 40 million people to live here,” said University of Southern California historian Kevin Starr told the New York broadsheet. “This is literally a culture that since the 1880s has progressively invented, invented and reinvented itself. At what point does this invention begin to hit limits?”

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