More than 2,000 people in an exclusive Californian neighbourhood, including celebrities such as Kevin Hart and Kim Kardashian, have been put on a list of water offenders as drought ravages the state.
The BBC went on patrol with the people residents have labelled the ‘water police’, who are tasked with reducing water use and educating people about how to cut back.
In a blistering third year of drought, Californians have been asked to limit their indoor water usage to 55 gallons (208 litres) per person per day. It takes about 30 gallons to fill a bathtub, so forget about a deep Jacuzzi experience.
Yet in the gated communities of Calabasas and Hidden Hills – exclusive enclaves in the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu – lush lawns and filled swimming pools and koi ponds make it clear that some are ignoring the rules.
So officials have created a device to take power showers away from rich and famous water hogs. A small metal disc with a pinhole drilled through the middle, it has seriously reduced the flow of water into some multimillion dollar homes.
People here call Derek Krauss the ‘water police’.
He works for the municipal utility, the Las Virgenes Water District, and his job is to install and remove the water flow restrictors if homeowners ignore repeated warnings to cut back.
The utility can also issue fines – but according to Mr Krauss, his main job is to educate the public about ways to reduce their use so there’s enough water to drink, bathe and fight wildfires.
This summer, more than 2,000 people in Las Virgenes have been put on a list of water offenders – including comedian Kevin Hart, actor Sylvester Stallone and the entrepreneurs Kim and Kourtney Kardashian.
Those cited on the list used more than 150% of their allocated water budget. If they ignore repeated warnings to cut back – Las Virgenes will install the flow restrictor for two weeks, which they did for Kevin Hart. If they commit to cutting back and replacing their grass, the water district will keep water flowing – which they did for the Kardashians.
While fines might not deter the rich and fabulous, lousy shower pressure might.
If a homeowner ignores five warnings to cut back on water, Mr Krauss will come and install the restricting device in a home’s main water meter pipe. Once it’s installed, the sink will still work and you can still wash your clothes and dishes – just not at the same time.
The BBC tagged along with Mr Krauss on a patrol, driving around a gated community in Calabasas looking for leaky swimming pools, contraband sprinklers, and green lawns.
While we found a few suspiciously green lawns that were clearly being watered more than the allocated once a week, there were signs that most people take conservation seriously. Many lawns are now mostly dead and brown. Some install fake green turf – others spray paint their dead grass green – which doesn’t look as fake and horrible as it sounds.
In July, residents in the Las Virgenes Water District used an average of 154 gallons of water per day. That’s slightly more than they used in June, but down from 2020 levels when residents were using a staggering average of 227 gallons per person per day.
Some expend much more than that – one customer here used 800,000 gallons of water last month, according to Mr Krauss.
Outdoor irrigation accounts for 70% of the water use in Las Virgenes, which relies on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada mountains for its water.
So far, officials have installed water flow restrictor devices in 70 homes, bringing the water pressure to a trickle. “They’re not happy,” Mr Krauss said, as he is asked how customers react when he comes to restrict their water.
Kevin Hart had a flow restrictor put on for two weeks and is now working with the authorities to get water usage down, according to the water district’s communications officer Mike McNutt.
The Kardashians have not had their water restricted – because they pledged to cut back and get rid of some of their green grass. Neither Hart nor the Kardashians responded to a request for comment.
Stallone is also working to cut his water use.
In a statement to the BBC, his lawyer Martin Singer said his client has let grasses die and that he has more than 500 trees which require watering. He also said most big properties in Las Virgenes have the same problems and that Stallone should not be mischaracterised or singled out because he is famous.
“I’m all for if they have to put restrictors on them, so be it,” said Calabasas resident Marcie Nabor, who has let her grass die. She said her daughter’s neighbour had just installed all new green grass landscaping and just ignores the drought and water restrictions.
Birch trees have been dying in the neighbourhood. Jacaranda and citrus trees are faring better with limited water. Sriram Dasu said he worries his trees are going to die and that property prices in Calabasas will drop because of climate change and water shortages. But he welcomes the restrictors.
“If you look at the water they are allocating it’s not really restrictive you just have to be more disciplined in how you use the water,” he said.
Mr McNutt said people need to realise you can still have luxury kerb appeal with drought tolerant landscaping.
“Californians, I think, have to adapt and evolve what their perception of something that’s aesthetically pleasing is,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to be able to support thirsty turf.”
The crystal blue Las Virgenes reservoir is the community’s emergency supply of water – it can last for six months when full. It’s just over 70% full now but dwindling fast. The state denied Las Virgenes’ request for more water.
With droughts affecting several parts of the country, water districts are increasingly competing to buy water.
Mr McNutt believes Californians need to rethink water because even if you can afford to pay for more, the choice affects everyone because the supply is so limited.
“Do we want an emerald green lawn? Or do you want to have enough water inside to cook, clean and bathe?” he said.
Some blame California’s leadership for failing to prepare for droughts and climate change. Joe Sykora, who lives just outside the Las Virgenes Water District, told the BBC that he first had to let his lawn die 50 years ago because of drought.
“We had the drought in the 70s – they had 50 years to do something about it and they’ve done nothing. They’ve had time. Fifty years and they didn’t do a thing to improve it,” he said.
The Las Virgenes Water District didn’t publish the names of water offenders – the LA Times newspaper initially obtained and published some names and now the celebrities have been widely named.
Mr McNutt said he hoped they would use their platforms to educate their many fans and followers about water conservation.
“Having these big names that are household names, it may not be good for them. But it’s good to have the conversation that we’re having right now,” he said. “Green lawns in California are going to be a thing of the past.”