Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Ultra-wealthy Californians refusing to conserve water may signal the beginning of a much bigger attitude crisis.
California’s getting more and more serious about water conservation: For the first time in nearly 40 years, the state mandated cuts for many of its oldest water-rights holders, many of whom are farmers. This comes just a few months after Governor Jerry Brown’s call for a 25 percent reduction among the state’s cities and towns—and as the state enters the summer of its fourth consecutive year of drought. Though agriculture water use will be hard to monitor, thirsty urban users who don’t comply face a range of fines.
So how do you explain a place like Rancho Santa Fe, an enclave of San Diego County, where water use has gone up by 9 percent since April?
Money. Steve Yuhas, a conservative talk-show host and part-time resident of Rancho Santa Fe, explained in a Washington Post hate-read this weekend: “We pay significant property taxes based on where we live,” he said. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to water.”
Yuhas’ quote is one of many nauseatingly backwards statements in the piece on why ultra-wealthy owners of multi-acre properties—which might boast orchards, stables, elaborate waterworks, and of course, bright sweeps of lawn—deserve more sympathy and fewer penalties.
“I’m a conservative, so this is strange, but I defend Barbra Streisand’s right to have a green lawn,” Yuhas says elsewhere in the story. Gay Butler, an interior designer, believes that having such few residents (two) on a property the size of hers (four acres) is actually conservation-positive. “You could put 20 houses on my property, and they’d have families of at least four. In my house, there is only two of us,” Butler says. “[T]hey’d be using a hell of a lot more water than we’re using.”
Rancho Santa Fe counts among the few areas in California required to squeeze water use by 36 percent, the maximum reduction. But it’s also one of a few places in the state that’s actually cranking the faucet open harder since the drought began, for reasons that aren’t totally clear. Are residents jacking up water use “in a misguided attempt to increase their baseline before rationing kicks in,” as one local water official suggested to the Post? Is a sort of deprivation mentality encouraging folks to flood their yards? Or is it something more brazen and selfish: A fat middle finger pointing north to Sacramento?
Whatever it is, the Post reports that the 3,100 residents of Rancho Santa Fe have not “felt the wrath of the water police”:
Authorities have issued only three citations for violations of a first round of rather mild water restrictions announced last fall. In a place where the median income is $189,000, where PGA legend Phil Mickelson once requested a separate water meter for his chipping greens, where financier Ralph Whitworth last month paid the Rolling Stones $2 million to play at a local bar, the fine, at $100, was less than intimidating.
Supposedly, that’s about to change, as the water district imposes an allotment for basic daily needs. People who exceed their allotment might see their flow restricted by the district, or else have their tap totally shut off.
It’s important to point out the views of Rancho Santa Fe’s biggest guzzlers are not shared by the vast majority of Californians, as a statewide survey by the Public Policy Institute of California published earlier this month shows. For the first time, 39 percent of Californians named water and drought as the most important issue facing the state right now—over jobs and the economy. Asked about their governor’s required water restrictions in urban areas, nearly half of all residents said the cuts “do the right amount to respond to the drought.” Thirty-six percent said the restrictions do not do enough, while 12 percent said they do too much.
Still, for the “1 percent” among that 12 percent, a limitless sense of entitlement plus a limitless supply of funds is a powerful combination. With California’s groundwater regulations years away from taking effect, what’s to stop deep-pocketed homeowners from digging their own wells? Or trucking in water? Or striking deals with local politicians? One ultra-wealthy resident compares his sprawling lawns to his Chevy Suburban: He can afford to pay for copious amounts water and gas, so who’s to say it’s not his right to do so?
It’s a chilling analogy, because many predict that water shortages, exacerbated by climate change, are going to cause global warfare similar to the way oil has. Water and oil are both highly limited resources. Yet water, unlike oil, is a human right—for Californians and for the 750 million who live without access to clean water worldwide. The attitude that money can, and should, buy any quantity of water isn’t common yet in California, but as droughts become longer and more dire all over the planet, it will likely spread. And the gap between who can drink freely and who cannot will grow.