Laura Bliss is CityLab’s West Coast bureau chief. She also writes MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Sierra, GOOD, Los Angeles, and elsewhere, including in the book The Future of Transportation.
A giant waterslide is heading to downtown L.A., whipping up understandable ire from water-conscious citizens. But when is pro-conservation just anti-fun?
In the midst of California's mega-drought, a gigantic slip-n-slide is planned to hit downtown Los Angeles at the end of this month. It's raised plenty of eyebrows over the city's message on water conservation—and whipped up a whirlpool of #droughtshaming.
#Droughtshaming, a newborn hash-tag that tattles on water-wasting neighbors and events, hit its Twitter-sphere stride on the heels of last month's ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The Washington Post estimated the online fundraising stunt dumped 5 million freezing gallons of water on heads across America, paining dried-out Californians.
Now L.A. drought-shamers are finding a new, IRL target in Slide The City. The event proposes to roll 1,000 feet of vinyl down three sloping blocks of Temple Street, charging $20 a ride (inner tube optional) on an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 potable gallons of water throughout the day. Slide The City President T.R. Gourley has said they've had enough pre-registrations to anticipate a sold-out event, with 3,500 tickets sold. For drought-shame!
UPDATE 5:30 PM, 9/19/14:
Apparently #droughtshaming is thicker than water: The City of Los Angeles has denied permits to Slide The City. "We're really disappointed," co-founder John Malfatto told me over the phone. "We jumped through a lot of hoops to comply with what the city was asking, but at the end of the day, when you look at this event, it just doesn't look like it's water-saving."
Malfatto wasn't able to provide any reasons why the permits were denied, other than the political freight the event had developed in light of the drought. He and other organizers plan to continue working with the city to reschedule the event.
Indeed, 20,000 gallons is a lot of water, enough to seem wasteful for recreational use. And for many Angelenos, it's adding insult to injury, given that California residents face state-enforced fines of up to $500 per day for washing down sidewalks and driveways, over-watering lawns, or using improper hose nozzles. It also doesn't help that this event comes but two months after a water main break at UCLA, which jetted 20 million gallons down city gutters. (Estimates began at 10 million, which explains the tweet below.)
The timing is, clearly, bad. As an online petition to pull the plug on Slide The City states:
It is extremely irresponsible for any city in California to allow an event like one featuring a giant water slide to take place for the sake of money and fun while the state as a whole has been suffering from this drought.
That sentiment has already garnered some 10,713 signatures—i.e., a whole lot of drought-shame. But what's actually at stake? Is this citizen ire actually about the water? 20,000 gallons is a lot, and yes, it's roughly the amount that 168 Angelenos use every day. But that's also the same amount that a single L.A. pool loses to evaporation in a year. Translation: This amount of water isn't going to stop the drought.
And, in light of the petition, Slide The City's organizers are working with city officials to arrange for the slide's water to be recycled and transported for watering at Griffith Park. Until the details are settled, the event won't receive its permit to actually happen.
Yet the slide-shaming persists, because this is really a matter of optics. With its sparkling lawns, pools, and golf courses, Southern California maintains a reputation as the state's primary water-guzzler. While Northern Californian cities are canceling water-consumptive events, Southlanders "don't want to be seen as the water hogs," as L.A. Times reporter Kerry Cavanaugh told KCRW.
But water hogs they are not. Southern California has been aggressively conserving water for decades, and per capita, consumes less than nearly any other region in the state. Conservation is an important part of getting through the massive drought, but many experts stress that it's not a silver bullet. Other water management approaches are needed: Increasing groundwater storage capacity, for example, and updating policy on accessing that groundwater. And, of course, this:
This is not to say Californians shouldn't keep cutting back on water use. Of course they should. But maybe there needs to be some cut-back on the drought-shaming, too. There's no question Slide The City's timing is bad. But it also sounds awfully fun. A three-block slip-n-slide throttling thousands of Angelenos down Hill Street, and the water goes to watering plants in Griffith Park? Sounds like one of the better ideas so far for fresh, communal uses of downtown L.A.'s historic streets.
Jon Christensen, Editor of Boom, told KCRW that Slide The City reminded him of Ciclavia's community-building bike interventions. "We should be really careful about being perceived as against fun when we're talking about water conservation," he said. "If that message gets confused, we're in trouble." And, in an ever-hotter L.A., these sorts of questions will continue to be important long after Slide The City is over.
"To live well and pleasantly, we are going to need places to cool off, where we can gather socially and have fun and build community," he said. "Maybe it would be a good idea to lose some of the thousands of private pools instead, and build more public pools."
Slide The City is looking to hold events in four additional California cities in the future—not to mention in Nevada, Texas, and Arizona. Gourley says by phone that the organization plans to recycle water in those locations, as well. "It's a water-neutral event, and it's fun for the whole family," he said. "And for the amount of negative feedback we've received, the positive is probably 20 to 30 times more."
Take that, #slideshamers.