Bruce Maiman

Water czars preach one thing but do another

Water agencies are mandating conservation, but some officials with those agencies are using far more than average households.
Water agencies are mandating conservation, but some officials with those agencies are using far more than average households. The Associated Press

Government bigwigs are once again doing what they do best – bending their own rules. Shocking, right?

The Center for Investigative Reporting analyzed water bills from 2012 and 2013 for roughly 150 local officials and found that nearly half of them used more water than the average household. Nearly 60 percent used more water in 2013 than in 2012, even as drought conditions worsened.

There are homeowners like that, but these officials oversee 22 of California’s largest water agencies, and in recent months, they’ve busily been enacting tough new water restrictions.

Those in the California proletariat – you know, taxpayers – use an average of 361 gallons of water per day, according to a 2011 study from the Department of Water Resources. That’s 132,000 gallons per household annually.

But Mike Soubirous, a member of the Riverside City Council that in July unanimously approved mandatory conservation, used more than 1 million gallons in 2013, about 2,740 gallons a day. Fresno City Councilman Oliver Baines and Riverside Board of Public Utilities member Andrew Walcker also topped 1 million gallons.

Soubirous told CIR he has a 1-acre lot with lots of landscaping. Pitifully, he pleaded: “Do I have to sell my house to set an example, or do I have to just abolish all my shrubs? I don’t know what to do.”

Wait, Riverside residents hired someone who oversees water usage who can’t figure out how to cut his water usage? You don’t say!

In a Facebook post, Soubirous said CIR quoted him out of context. He claims he feared getting fined $1,000 a day because Riverside had strict lawn upkeep codes until July, when statewide regulators empowered cities to fine residents up to $500 for overwatering their lawns.

Baines, meanwhile, blamed his usage on a bad sprinkler, which he discovered one year and 1.24 million gallons later. Don’t these people get water bills?

Fresno mayor and secretary of state hopeful Ashley Swearengin ranked 22nd on CIR’s list, using 850 gallons of water per day. Her constituents use just 250 gallons, according to a 2013 city report. Rather than talk to reporters, she feebly issued a statement, explaining: “I have many strengths, but programming my sprinkler system is not one of them.”

No doubt opponent Betty Yee is riffling through her own water bills as we speak.

CIR didn’t interview any Sacramento officials, so let’s look. In January, the City Council enacted a mandatory 20 percent reduction on water usage, yet Councilmen Kevin McCarty and Steve Cohn – now running against each other for a state Assembly seat – both made the CIR list. McCarty is 13th, using 1,064 gallons a day last year, nearly four times the average Sacramento household.

McCarty told me his property is four times larger than a typical 5,000-square-foot lot in Sacramento. “Second, I have two houses on it. I have a rental property. It’s all on one water bill. I think that skews it,” he said.

“When I bought the property in 2007, it was just one house with all lawn.” McCarty continued. “I used a tremendous amount of water that first year. ‘Holy mackerel,’ I said, ‘we need to do something.’ That’s when I replaced half my lawn with drought-resistant plants.”

At least he reads his water bill. Still, dividing his usage in half, that’s 532 gallons per day. And he used more water in 2013 than he did in 2012, as the drought worsened.

So did Cohn, whose water usage went from 454 gallons a day in 2012 to 497 gallons in 2013, nearly twice the citywide average. “All I know is, I used half the water my opponent did,” Cohn told me.

Of the other records I could obtain for Sacramento officials, Mayor Kevin Johnson and council members Angelique Ashby and Steve Hansen had below-average water usage.

Maybe it reflects who the real water hogs are. According to that DWR study, Northern California households typically use about 295 gallons per day, while Southern Californians guzzle 523 gallons. In Palm Springs, it’s a staggering 736 gallons.

I was thinking, though: An online ad touts saving 50 gallons of water a week by putting a brick in your toilet tank. That’s 2,600 gallons a year. If just 385 people do this, poor Mr. Soubirous can have his million gallons back. Who’s with me?

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at brucemaiman@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.

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