Drought posse searching for Bel Air's biggest water waster

The water-hogging champ of California, a Bel-Air resident who has managed to suck 1,300 gallons of H2O an hour from the state's scant drought-limited supply, may soon find that there's no ice bucket for the champagne, no green in the polo turf and nothing but dust in the Versailles fountain.

I now have a drought posse scouring satellite maps, following neighborhood gutter flows and reporting directly to me. I even know someone who has put a camera-equipped drone into service.

So here's a news flash for the barbarous beast:

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.

Even Los Angeles City Councilman Paul Koretz is shocked by the level of water abuse I wrote about last week. He introduced a motion Friday calling for a crackdown that could include "severe financial penalties" and even, "as a last resort, shutting off water."

"We were horrified to read that there were abusers of that scale, and we have to figure out how to get a handle on that," Koretz told me, saying that "criminal penalties" may be in order.

The councilman is calling for a report from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power within 30 days, and the matter is scheduled to be taken up soon by the full City Council.

If you missed it, four of the top five single-family residential water guzzlers in California live in the affluent and all-too-green hills of Bel-Air, and the biggest glutton used 11.8 million gallons in the year ending in April. The news was broken by the Center for Investigative Reporting in a story titled "The Wet Prince of Bel-Air."

"I can't even imagine what you would do if you were trying to use that much water," said Koretz, whose motion called the abuse "a slap in the face to neighbors who have heroically complied with austere water use measures" and greatly reduced L.A.'s total water usage.

Koretz said he doesn't know who the top water hogs were, one of whom paid as much as $90,000 to keep the spigots going full blast. And the DWP has refused to supply that information to me or the Center for Investigative Reporting.

What we do know is that Bel-Air — home to Elon Musk, Nancy Reagan, Berry Gordy and Jennifer Aniston — had lots of company from nearby neighborhoods that made the top 10 list, including Brentwood, Beverly Hills and Westwood. Bel-Air had 19 residential customers using 2.8 million gallons or more per year. Beverly Hills had 32.

A DWP spokeswoman said that although the utility was willing to provide the ZIP Codes of the biggest water users, it remained "committed to protecting our customers' confidentiality."

Oh, come on. Our toilet water is yellow, and we deserve to know.

These aren't innocent offenders who forgot to turn off a hose once or twice. In the middle of an epic drought, they selfishly consumed obscene amounts of a precious resource while working stiffs did the right thing, sacrificing hard-earned investments in their modest little yards.

The outrage extends well beyond California.

"Look at the top view in the first screenshot, look at all the cars and hedges for each," Donald Morrison wrote from Boston in an email containing images of possible suspects pulled from Google maps.

So why is he on the case from clear across the country?

"I would relish helping find" the culprit, he said.

Friday morning, I went out on patrol with Bel-Air Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council member Maureen Levinson, doing a little surveillance on a Tuscan-style villa with a hillside vineyard. Levinson said there may be a few super wealthy residents who don’t give a hoot about conservation, but they are giving a bad name to Bel-Air residents who do. 

For the record, I said on Wednesday that you'd have to flush the toilet 6,400 times in a day to hit the 32,000 gallons daily that's used by the state's leading guzzler. Readers noted that modern toilets use closer to 1.6 gallons, which means you'd have to flush about 20,000 times in one day.

A host of readers suggested the top water consumer was the Bel-Air Hotel or the Bel-Air Country Club. But those are commercial properties, and we're looking for private homeowners.

One of the top vote-getters was media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Moraga Vineyards estate in Bel-Air two years ago. But that property is in the 90049 ZIP Code, and the top hogs are in 90077.

"My wife and I were trying to figure out who it could be, but I have no idea," said Fred Rosen, former chief executive of Ticketmaster and president of the Bel-Air Homeowners Alliance.

Rosen and Levinson, my patrol partner, spearheaded a neighborhood uprising against years of unchecked mega-mansion building leading up to the worst years of the drought. Developers had been running amok, erecting monstrous palaces of unparalleled pretense, scarring ridgelines, destroying natural habitat and crowding narrow streets with caravans of construction vehicles.

City officials, comatose throughout, were finally forced to wake up and impose a few limits. But even with controls on future projects, dozens of homes at 20,000 square feet or more will still be under construction for another couple of years, said Levinson, and when they're done, the current water abuse champ could get knocked off the throne.

From her balcony, Levinson can look out at homes that resemble shopping malls. One just up the block from her approaches 100,000 square feet of living space and will have a casino, a jellyfish aquarium and a 30-car garage — asking price, $500 million.

Levinson has used a camera-equipped drone to monitor some of the more obscene developments, but she said she parked it in August to research legal issues around the use of such aircraft. She showed me plans for homes that include indoor and outdoor pools and fountains, and said the house up the block from her has permits for five swimming pools and an application for a sixth. As she sees it, the pools will form a moat around the house.

Last Sunday I wrote about some Kardashian wannabes who had a caged lion at their mansion-warming party in Hollywood Dell, and I admitted to dreaming about what might have happened if the lion broke free.

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