California drought could wither many Los Angeles lawns

From behind the wheel of his work van, Fernando Gonzalez took in the immaculate front yard amid the arid and affluent hills north of Los Angeles. The red and white rosebushes. The loquat and pear trees. The expanse of lush green grass and the two peacocks lounging beneath the portico.

The stately residence had been consuming about 40,000 gallons of water a month, and had already received a warning and a fine for overuse. Amid the historic drought now entering its third painful summer, Gonzalez’s employer, the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, has demanded this home and millions of others cut irrigation by 35 percent as of June 1. If things don’t improve by September, authorities say, outdoor water use could be banned entirely.

“Hundreds of thousands of dollars in their landscaping,” Gonzalez said. “And now we’re telling them: you almost have to let it die.”

The relentless dry spell that is withering the American West is steadily warping normal life. Major reservoirs have baked down to record lows and are still dropping, threatening the ability to generate hydropower. Farming regions that fill the country’s produce aisles are being forced to leave fields fallow, unable to irrigate. The warming climate is fanning wildfires and melting off the mountain snowpack that millions rely on for their drinking water.

In Los Angeles, the drought is now coming for the lawns.

“We are in an emergency. I call this a natural disaster,” said Adel Hagekhalil, the general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which announced last month that some 6 million people in its service area will have to limit irrigation to one day per week, the most severe cutbacks in its history.

“It’s okay to have your lawn yellow,” said Hagekhalil, who oversees a $1.9 billion budget and nearly 2,000 employees from his office in downtown Los Angeles. “You don’t have to have it lush green. I know we all love our grass but we need to sacrifice, because none of us want to have a day without water.”

But this is not a sacrifice everyone is willing to make. Since the restriction warnings began, customers have bombarded the Las Virgenes water office — one of 26 public water agencies which operate under the Metropolitan Water District — with angry phone calls.

“People freaked out,” said Mike McNutt, a spokesman for the water district. “It was insane. I felt terrible for the front-office staff, which are doing a tremendous job for us. Irritated, pissed off people, all that stuff.”

Water for landscaping makes up about 70 to 80 percent of urban water use in Southern California, said Heather Cooley, director of research at the Pacific Institute, a water think tank. “If we shift toward plants and landscapes that are more appropriate toward California climate, we could dramatically reduce our water use,” she said.

Under the new rules, the Metropolitan Water District has given its public-water agencies a choice: reduce water use to an average of 80 gallons per day per capita; or limit outdoor watering to once a week. Some areas, particularly wealthy communities, consume far more water than the 80 gallons per person per day. Las Virgenes customers, for example, use more than 200 gallons per day. Most jurisdictions have chosen the one-day-a-week watering path.

Faced with such a dramatic jolt, Las Virgenes, which is completely reliant on imported water, has moved faster than other agencies to develop a plan to enforce the cutbacks. The district hired a private security company to do night patrols, starting May 2, to look for excessive watering. They’ve developed a scale of punishments for overuse, from escalating fines to installing “water restrictors,” which are metal discs with a pinhole in the middle that chokes off water to an aggravating trickle.

“When you look at some of the measures we’re putting in place I would say some of them are pretty draconian,” said David W. Pedersen, the water district’s general manager. “But we need to have them, because we’re in a situation where there just isn’t enough water to go around.”

“The American Dream has been rooted in the white picket fence and big front lawn,” he added. “I think that’s changing. It needs to change.”

At the home with the peacocks in Agoura Hills, owners Jim and Cindy Hampton said the situation has frustrated many in the neighborhood.

“The initial response right now is anger,” said Jim Hampton, an engineer. “What gets them angry is, there’s a sense of finality to the threat that your water is going to be shut off pretty much completely.”