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Meet the People Who Are Wasting the West's Water on Purpose

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On Friday, California passed its deepest water cuts yet, the state’s latest attempt to conserve a dwindling resource in a region crippled by drought. Yet there remains a small group of people in states throughout the West who continue to flagrantly waste water. Yes, on purpose. And it’s not just the wealthy.

The announcement that California is curtailing the rights of its most senior water rights holders is big news. This will mostly affect farmers: About 100 farms and irrigation districts that have held rights since before 1914 will no longer have priority access to water as they did in years passed. There are some rights holders which are still not affected, but most of the agricultural interests in California will have their water severely restricted this summer.


And cities will also be slashing water use. Back in April, the state issued a mandatory 25 percent reduction across all urban water districts. Cities had to look back at the amount of water they used in 2013 and propose a way to cut that figure by a quarter starting July 1. If they don’t reduce their use as planned, the state will impose hefty fines—up to $10,000 a day—upon the agencies that supply the cities’ water.

After the April cutbacks were announced, most cities in California were able to decrease their usage before the official enforcement system was even in place. Overall, the state reduced consumption by 13.5 percent in April. But conservation has not been top of mind everywhere.


Remember when I said celebrity drought-shaming is pointless, and if we really want to nail the water hogs we should go after the data? The Washington Post paid a visit to Rancho Santa Fe, a Southern California enclave of the megarich, after noticing a peculiar anomaly in the city’s water data this spring.

In May, Rancho Santa Fe’s water use was 9 percent higher.

How could water use possibly go up even with watering days and other restrictions already in place? Jessica Parks with the Santa Fe Irrigation District proposed a disturbing theory:

Parks said she doesn’t know exactly what happened, but she has heard rumors that some people jacked up their water use in a misguided attempt to increase their baseline before rationing kicks in.

It all sounds totally ridiculous—how could people possibly be that stupid and/or arrogant?—until you start to meet some of the area’s residents.

Like Brett Barbre. He sits on the board of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California which distributes to cities like Los Angeles. But he obviously doesn’t care much for the 15 million residents of Southern California to whom he helps supply water. He is sick of the state telling him what to do and calls the cutbacks a “war on suburbia”:

He is fond of referring to his watering hose with Charlton Heston’s famous quote about guns: “They’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”


Barbre and his NRA of water guzzlers will be in for a rude awakening when the area will be forced to severely decrease water use on July 1. This means not just restrictions, but rationing. Every household will get a specified amount of water per month (enough for “indoor use” like bathing and washing dishes) and if your water use goes over that, you pay out the nose for it—mostly to help offset the fines that the water agency will have to pay to the state.

However, knowing that the threat of shelling out extra cash for a fountain or two won’t deter some of the water-hogging elite, the city is actually allowed to forcibly install flow restrictors in homes for people who don’t comply. Can you imagine the city going around putting shut-off valves in people’s McMansions? I can’t, actually. I’m sure these will conveniently “break.”


But it’s not just the superwealthy who are defiantly wasting water. Last week, as part of ProPublica’s ongoing drought series, Abrahm Lustgarten explored an archaic rule in many Western states’ water policy where farmers are required to show they used a certain amount of water in order to get claims for the same amount of water the next year. Nicknamed “use it or lose it,” the concept might spur farmers to flood-irrigate their crops, for example, when a drip-based watering method might be more efficient.

“If you save it you lose it. You don’t get paid for it. You just give it up,” said Patrick O’Toole, president of the Family Farm Alliance, a national farmer advocacy group that advises Washington policymakers, repeating complaints he says he hears from some of his members. “So why would you give up water for use you don’t even believe in, for nothing?”


The farmers claim that even when they’re “wasting” water, they’re replenishing the aquifers and helping keep streams and lakes healthy. But there’s also a very strong sense of rural vs. urban polarity—like the farmers should get to keep using as much as they always have, on principle, and not allow more to flow downstream to the cities below. Just because California needs more water doesn’t mean his crops should die, says Bill Trampe, a farmer in Colorado:

“The cities continue to grow and grow and grow … and they expect me — or us as an industry — to give up water,” Trampe said. “Why should I suffer for their sprawl?”


The Daily Show had a hilarious bit showing parched Angeleno Al Madrigal sloshing through New York City as a kind of “Drought Rumspringa.” I thought it was pretty hilarious to watch him douse himself in a Flashdance-with-bottled water montage. But watching it after writing this piece, it’s also kind of sickening. From what these two reports are saying, this may not be too far from the truth.

Follow the author on Twitter at @awalkerinLA

Top GIF via The Daily Show’s Drought Rumspringa