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LOS ANGELES — In a season when feeble snowpack has sharpened worries about long-term water supplies, some say it's time for the state of Utah to start learning lessons about water conservation from the city of Los Angeles.
The Utah Legislature recently signaled support for a future Lake Powell pipeline and for dams on the Bear River partly because of forecasts that the state's population will double in the next few decades. But skeptics say Utahns waste so much water that there's plenty we could learn from Los Angeles. In spite of rapid growth since 1970, aggressive water conservation policies helped L.A. avoid increases in water use.
L.A. is currently under fierce pressure to save even more water in the face of California's worst drought on record. But the city's water conservation record over the last few decades has been impressive, according to L.A.'s top "water cop" Rick Silva.
"Los Angeles uses the same amount of water that they did 40 years ago," Silva said, "Even though the population's grown by over a million people."
On a typical morning in L.A., you'll see Silva's car criss-crossing L.A. neighborhoods, emblazoned with conservation messages from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP).
"Looks like they just finished watering," he said as he observed an L.A. resident putting away a gardening hose. "It is their day to water. And today's Tuesday so even-numbered addresses are allowed to irrigate."
Part of Silva's role is to make sure people follow strict day-and-hour rules for water use. Each home is limited to watering three days a week, before 9 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
Silva sees his job as a small dose of enforcement mixed with a heavy dose of education. He responds often to calls and emails from L.A. residents reporting excessive water use by their neighbors. "Do we get neighbor disputes and squabbles? Yes," Silva said. "We try to avoid those and use our best judgment."
Los Angeles uses the same amount of water that they did 40 years ago. Even though the population's grown by over a million people.
–Rick Silva, LA's top "water cop"
Stiff fines are possible for repeat violators, a threat that looms larger in this year of intense drought. But mostly Silva just warns people who do things wrong. He said he tries to educate them, hoping to change habits.
When he spotted water running down an alley behind a high school, Silva did a U-turn to investigate.
"Because of the amount of water, I'm guessing that we have a broken sprinkler head," Silva explained. He documented the spillage and figured out who to call and educate — in this case the groundskeepers at Los Angeles High School.
The city doesn't have data that would show which water conservation policies have done the most good over the years. But it's clear that something has worked in this sprawling city, which is forced to import most of its water.
Among other tactics, the city installed meters to keep track of all water uses and adopted a two-tiered rate structure that charges more per gallon for heavier users. More efficient indoor plumbing was encouraged with subsidies and mandated for new construction.
"We have local ordinances that we (put) in place decades ago that require that," said Penny Falcon, LADWP's water conservation manager.
"We've grown by a million people, and yet water use has remained flat," said Wade Graham, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who specializes in water issues. "The ways of achieving this were quite simple. It's mandating and subsidizing low-flow toilets and low-flow shower heads, and drip irrigation, and a little bit of a change in people's attitude towards what a garden ought to look like. Nothing revolutionary, really."
When all water users are taken into account — including businesses, government, parks and other institutions — Los Angeles today uses about 129 gallons per person per day. Residential usage is much lower: about 89 gallons per person per day.
In Utah, water use is almost twice as high. The comparable numbers are 240 gallons per person per day when all uses are counted and 167 gallons per person per day at residences. Along the Wasatch Front, the usage is slightly lower than the state as a whole: 225 gallons per capita when all uses are included and 160 gallons at residences.
Federal statistics indicate that Utah uses more water per capita than any other state, although state officials dispute that dubious national distinction.
"The numbers aren't necessarily comparable because of the way that they're reported," said Eric Millis, director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. "There really is no national standard for reporting water use."
In Los Angeles, nature long ago gave residents a shove with a scary drought in the 1980s.
"That's what really launched our conservation program," Falcon said. "At that time, the customers did understand the worth of water — that they had to cut back on their water use."
Graham especially likes what L.A. did in a place called Elmer Street. It used to be prone to flooding during storms; enormous amounts of water would pour down storm drains and travel through storm sewers into the ocean.
When city crews re-paved Elmer Street, in front of homes they created "bioswales" — specially designed ditches with vegetation — that help water sink into the soil. Under the street, they placed beds of gravel that also help water percolate downward.
"So instead of the water going as fast as possible into the storm-drain system and out to sea," Graham said, "you hold on to it as long as you can. It goes down into the groundwater and it recharges the aquifer."
The new features allow stormwater to refresh the aquifer under Elmer Street with 13 million gallons of water each year.
"Doesn't sound like a lot," Graham said, "but it's enough water theoretically for all the people who live on this street. It suits their needs." He thinks such water-saving designs are the wave of the future and argues that they should become commonplace in Western cities in the coming decades.
Thanks to the deepening drought, the city of L.A. has been upping its game in recent years. After decades of adopting programs, regulations and subsidies to make home plumbing more efficient, LADWP is turning more attention to outside watering.
"In this Phase Two that we're in, its more of an educational phase," Silva said. "So if we get that change in habit we're happy. And I believe that's why it's working in Los Angeles, why we're hitting our goals."
Being more efficient with water is not difficult in the urban sector. And it's the only responsible thing to do.
–Wade Graham, professor of public policy at Pepperdine University
Like Las Vegas, L.A. is paying people to replace lawns with less thirsty native vegetation, watered with drip irrigation.
"Absolutely," Falcon said. "We're currently paying $3.75 per square-foot. We want them to transition to the new norm: California-friendly landscaping and stormwater or rainwater capture."
In Utah, environmentalists say the state's exceptionally high water use is partly due to the fact that water is typically subsidized by property taxes, making it artificially cheap.
"Utahns have the highest per person water use in the United States because we have the cheapest water rates," said Zach Frankel of the Utah Rivers Council. He said L.A.-style conservation would be far cheaper than building pipelines and damming rivers.
"There is simply no reason why Utah needs to dry up all of its rivers."
Utah's water officials counter that they've strongly encouraged conservation. And they argue that Utahns have stepped up to the plate, reducing use by 18 percent in recent years. "Which is a good percent of the 25 percent of the 2025 goal that we have," Millis said.
"But there is a limit," said Tage Flint, general manager of the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District. "We seem to get a lot of input that, (people say) 'Don't take my yard away from me,' They still like to have a green yard in which they can recreate and have their kids play and have other activities." Flint also points out that turf buyouts and other conservation programs are expensive. "I just don't think that extreme water conservation will be accepted well by the public yet," Flint said, "nor do I think it's the cheapest alternative."
Utah officials argue that L.A. is not a perfect role model because the city has a different climate, a denser population with smaller yards, less green space and a non-Utah culture.
"We've got a dry climate," Millis said. "We've got lawns and gardens that we've had historically since the Mormon pioneers came and settled here. It's just been part of our culture and heritage."
But in L.A., many have learned to enjoy the low-water plants that are now more common in residential yards than they used to be.
"Especially at this time of year," Silva said. "They're all flowering and stuff."
Graham believes the Wasatch Front could do much more to follow L.A.'s lead.
"Being more efficient with water is not difficult in the urban sector," he said. "And it's the only responsible thing to do."