It can be difficult to figure out who or what should be held accountable during a drought. Mother Nature? Barometric pressure? Pobrecito El Niño?
Beyond the weather, though, there’s another pattern emerging in California’s historic drought: Vital information is being kept secret.
Here’s a list of what’s being hidden in these dry times:
1. Government agencies are withholding the names of wealthy residents who continue to use staggering amounts of water.
One household in Bel Air used nearly 12 million gallons in a year. That’s enough for 90 families – and a $90,000 water bill. But the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power won’t say who he or she is. So we’ve been left to wonder who this mysterious Wet Prince of Bel Air could be. A drought posse has even been rounded up in Los Angeles.
This guzzler isn’t alone. Reveal reporters Lance Williams and Katharine Mieszkowski have discovered that hundreds of California residents use more than 1 million gallons a year. Their names are being shielded by the government, too. This is despite evidence that naming and shaming works – just ask former Oakland A’s slugger Mark McGwire and current A’s mastermind Billy Beane.
2. Other government agencies won’t say how much water their biggest residential customers use.
We know about those big water guzzlers only because water agencies in places like San Diego, Los Angeles and Oakland coughed up a list of their top users without names attached.
Fourteen of the top 22 water agencies in the state wouldn’t turn over anything. Anaheim says it doesn’t have the records. Marin, Modesto and Riverside say state law keep the figures secret. Sacramento and Contra Costa wanted hundreds of dollars for the information. The Irvine Ranch Water District wanted $2,100.
3. They can do this because California changed the law in 1997 in response to concerns about Silicon Valley executives’ privacy.
There are easy ways to guard the privacy of people like tech executives while still disclosing their water use, such as withholding their addresses.
Following our stories on water guzzlers, The Sacramento Bee editorial page called on the state Legislature to overturn this exemption. Despite the editorial’s catchy headline – “California’s water hogs need a little sunshine” – there’s been no action yet.
4. The Legislature also is hiding the names of who’s draining the state’s precious underwater aquifers.
The state’s farmers are tapping groundwater at an unsustainable rate. They’re even beginning to draw on water that was deposited during the ice age. Now, the Legislature has passed a law to begin regulating groundwater. It got a lot of attention. You might even say it was much ballyhooed.
But it contained an important catch: It won’t name who’s draining those aquifers. And that means it will make it hard to hold people accountable and find out whether the law’s working.
5. The severe strain being put on those aquifers is causing the state to literally sink.
It’s doing so at a historic rate. It’s cracking infrastructure and homes.
And then there’s the looming concern about what could happen when it actually starts raining again: serious flooding.