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Trying to Get the Drop on Water Wasters

Reporting from the front lines can be tough. You never know just what to expect. Incoming, outgoing, odd, even, who can tell?

Whatever happens, you just hope it doesn’t hurt.

“If they start to take a swing, you go first,” Ernie Venegas tells me.

Oh, that Ernie. Always making jokes. Ernie knows this is my first time out. He probably thinks I’m a wimp.

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Maybe it’s the high heels, with the coordinating purse.

We board the official vehicle. Ernie opens the door for me, a gentleman even in times such as these.

“Some people, they still don’t believe this is real,” Ernie says. “Like the guys where I live in Irwindale, the guys I grew up with, they say this is probably a plot to boost up the water bill. You know, like the oil companies.”

Ernie Venegas, of course, tells them this is not so. He is the senior water service man in La Habra, on the front lines of the drought.

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But it’s all out there, Ernie says: the skeptical, the ignorant, the stupid.

Not to mention The Very Very Hostile.

“The meter readers, they’re the ones who really come back with the stories,” Ernie says. “Guy says he’s paying for it, so he can use it any way he wants. This is a bad attitude.”

Ernie and I are going to see for ourselves. The official vehicle is now bounding out of the parking lot.

The water types in La Habra, they’ve been checking up on the citizenry quite a bit lately, ever since the city went to so-called Stage 2, which would be your mandatory compliance water alert.

So far, they’ve just been issuing your so-called “verbals,” which would be telling the perpetrator to knock it off. If that doesn’t work, you go to citations, then to installing a flow-restricting device, then to cutting off the water altogether.

If none of that works, the water guys start writing your name and water account number on the walls of bus terminal restrooms throughout the drought-stricken western region.

Hahaha. Just a little water humor there.

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Ernie and I are now making a right turn into La Habra’s North Hills development, on the lookout for scofflaws of all makes and models.

Clue to La Habra residents: It is 1:10 p.m. on Feb. 26.

Right! An even day!

This means that those of you with even-numbered addresses may turn on your sprinklers, wash your car and refill your pool (or artificial lake).

Not, however, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Except for the car, that is. Or the pool, or the spa, or the pond, or the artificial lake. Those you’ve got to get out of the way before 6 a.m.

So this is easy, right? 1:10 p.m. is dry time, odd and even. Days, that is. And addresses.

So far, looks good and dry in North Hills. Lots of American flags flapping in the gentle breeze. I note, however, that one house still has its Christmas lights up.

Clue to La Habra resident: See above clue. Easter is just around the corner.

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Then Ernie spots it.

“They’re irrigating,” he says, pulling the official vehicle to a stop at the curb.

I silently marvel at this man’s professionalism. We are about to engage the enemy, and he’s as cool as they come.

As I disembark from the official vehicle I notice that the passenger door is painted with the likeness of a very friendly water drop man holding a glass of--and I’m just guessing here--water!

“Water at Your Service,” reads the motto under the water drop man. “Conserve!”

It is hard to believe that The Very Very Hostile could stay that way for long when they see the face of the friendly water drop man. But then again, you never know. It takes all kinds here in La Habra.

Ernie and I walk to the front door, but before we reach it: Surprise! The sprinklers shut off. This diversionary tactic does not fool us, however. We proceed.

A pleasant-looking blond woman answers the door. I hang back. I see that Ernie is handling the situation.

Did I mention that Ernie is a bodybuilder? Well, he is. And the tattoo. Let me mention right here that Ernie has a lovely rose tattoo with his nickname, Che, on his left, very muscled arm.

Ernie has an authoritative presence, especially for a senior water service man.

The pleasant-looking blond woman is smiling, slightly. Then she says she doesn’t know anything about La Habra’s mandatory water conservation plan. Then she adds that her husband said he had heard of some rule, except that he didn’t know what it was. Then she wants to know about this odd and even business. Then she says she’s sorry and she’ll do better next time.

Ernie and I leave. As we walk down the driveway, Ernie tells me that he thinks the pleasant-looking woman was lying. Ernie!

But what are you going to do?

“It’s kind of too hard to jump on them now,” Ernie says. “Especially since the city hasn’t sent out the official notices. Plus, if we say one thing really definitive now, then the city changes it, it makes us look like we don’t know what we’re doing, and we don’t need that kind of image.”

No sir.

Ernie and I keep driving, spotting another sprinkler violator right away. The lady of the house is apologetic.

“Oh, my husband forgot,” she says. “Yes, I know. You are right. I told my husband the other day, ‘You have to change those timers!’ ”

Ernie offers to look at her timer, but it is not the Lawn Genie that he is familiar with. The lady of the house suggests that maybe City Hall could change the regulations to accommodate her particular type of lawn timer.

Ernie and I keep going. He spies a resident emptying a swimming pool. Perfectly legal. Just can’t fill it up until Friday.

We change neighborhoods.

“No action,” Ernie says. “Water is pretty boring, huh?”

But, then, wait. I spot it. Yes! Anothe r house with Christmas lights! This is about No. 7.

Then we find a guy who hosed off some oil in his driveway. “It was just a quickie deal,” he says.

Then we see Richard, the landscaping guy, who says he was turning on the sprinklers at the request of the owner. “I thought this was Brea,” Richard says.

Another gardener, hosing off the sidewalk on another street, asks for an exception, just this once.

“I don’t use water,” he says. “I use el blower .”

Ernie and I are now heading back to base. We’ve seen a lot.

“All these people made a liar out of me,” Ernie says. “Not one mean person!”

“Ah, Ernie,” I say. “That’s all right.”

Then something catches Ernie’s well-trained eye.

“Look!” he says. I turn abruptly, expecting, say, a church-sponsored carwash that we could really throw the book at.

“There’s another one, right there, No. 710,” Ernie says. “Christmas lights! In La Habra, it’s Christmas all year round.”


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