A month ago, we sniffed out California’s largest known residential water user. Because a 1997 provision in the state’s Public Records Act protects homeowners’ utility data, we couldn’t attach an actual name to this mysterious “Wet Prince of Bel Air.” But here’s what we do know: He (or she) went through 11.8 million gallons in a year – enough for 90 families.
Responses to our story were swift. The Los Angeles Times’ Steve Lopez drove around Bel Air, peeking past hedges and interviewing residents. He later enlisted a “drought posse” to scour satellite maps, monitor water flows and fly drones over the neighborhood’s palatial homes.
“(H)ere’s a news flash for the barbarous beast,” he wrote. “We’re going to get you sooner or later, so why not make this easy on yourself? Drop the hose, drain the fountains and step out of the shadows.”
Two days later, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to take action against the city’s biggest guzzlers. The motion required the city’s Department of Water and Power to explore imposing “severe financial penalties” on those who fail to conserve. The department is expected to report back to the council this month.
Other media organizations caught wind of the story, too: The New York Daily News, Breitbart and Mother Jones ran their own stories. Jezebel, the Gawker-owned women’s news blog, was perhaps the least charitable.
In one of two editorials, The Sacramento Bee called on California lawmakers to roll back the provision protecting the identities of water guzzlers.
“(T)here should be no exemption to the Public Records Act because a person might be embarrassed,” the editors wrote. “If attention shames extreme water wasters in curtailing use, the public would benefit.”
And last week, the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the Menlo Country Club, which includes a lush golf course, used an astonishing 320,842 gallons per day in September – enough to supply 7,825 typical homes in the area.
Since we hung the Wet Prince out to dry, California water agencies have been compelled to act in response to news organizations’ public records requests. On Oct. 16, the East Bay Municipal Utility District released a list of residents slapped with fines for pumping more than 1,000 gallons of water. Among them was Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics executive whose analytics-obsessed style was immortalized in the book – and film – “Moneyball.” And the Chronicle’s Menlo Country Club story came about after San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission agreed to release data on users it had ordered to decrease water usage.
But our main question still lingers: Will the Wet Prince’s identity be made public anytime soon? It’s unlikely, unless California decides to change the law that conceals names of its biggest guzzlers. In other words, although the heat is on – from media, residents and local lawmakers – so is the water.