Rick Silva began his investigation at the end of an alley, on a hot day in L.A.'s Westlake community. Driving down a busy thoroughfare, he spied water runoff on a sidewalk.
He steered his city-owned Honda Civic into the alley and followed the water to a small plastic pipe adjacent to a convalescent home.
Silva parked and went inside to see the manager. After introducing himself as "LADWP," Silva said loudly, "You know there's a drought."
The manager replied that the runoff was from the cleaning of barrels for sanitation purposes. He added that the facility used water-saving pressure hoses for the job.
Silva smiled. The place checked out.
Silva is a water cop in the city's Water Conservation Response Unit. While other kinds of investigators follow fingerprints or eyewitness accounts, Silva follows the water, patrolling the streets of Los Angeles in search of wasteful homes or businesses during the state's extreme drought.
It's a daunting task — just four people, full time, policing an area of about 460 square miles. For that reason, they mostly respond to calls or emails from people who report their neighbors watering lawns on the wrong days, spraying down sidewalks or allowing street runoff. The agency does not reveal the identity of the tipsters.
If Silva sees other violators while driving to check out tips, he stops to talk to them as well.
The phone lines have been busy since July, when the state announced daily fines of up to $500 for violators. News reports about the fines raised public awareness, and Silva estimates the number of tips rose fourfold, with about 75% pertaining to violators in single-family homes.
The fines applied to water districts across the state, although not in Los Angeles, which has had restrictions in place since 2009. Los Angeles decreased its water consumption 2.4% in the five months since Gov. Jerry Brown declared the drought last winter, compared with the same period last year.
In L.A., fines of $100 can be levied for such behavior as using sprinklers more than three days a week, watering outdoors between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m., hosing down sidewalks and allowing water runoff into the streets.
The fines can rise to $300 for repeat violators. Businesses pay double those amounts.
For the most part, a warning is all that is needed.
Penny Falcon, who manages water conservation policy for the Department of Water and Power, said the agency has found that "once people become educated on what requirements there are, they want to respond and do the right thing." The conservation unit sends out informational letters and gives personal warnings to water wasters, handing out fines only after repeated violations.
Since fall 2013, the city has received more than 1,100 reports of water violations. Of those, more than 850 repeat offenders received warnings. None had to be fined for continued violations.
Rather than ramping up enforcement, the DWP is focusing on educational outreach through Silva's unit, in which he was the lone full-time employee until three others were added in recent weeks.
Silva said he is ready for stricter rules if the drought worsens. If rain and snowfall levels are low again this winter, he said, outdoor irrigation could be further restricted or completely outlawed as early as next summer, leaving almost every lawn in Los Angeles dead. Currently, about 40% of the city's drinking water is used for landscape irrigation.
"If we don't get rain for another two or three years, then everyone becomes a water cop," Silva said. "I don't want my neighbor watering his lawn if I won't have enough water to drink and live."
But for now, even as statewide predictions look bleak, the water cop has hope.
"L.A. gets it — not to the very last person — but on the whole we get it," Silva said. "If everyone contributes, we can go into these regular cycles and everything will be OK."