Officials go with the flow
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa challenged residents this summer to “change course” and slash their water use by 10% in the face of a historic drought.
But records show that the mayor and several other top city officials have long been heavy water users themselves.
In Villaraigosa’s case, even if he had made a 10% reduction at the two homes where he has lived since winning election in 2005, he still would have used nearly twice as much water as comparable properties in the vicinity.
City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Councilman Tony Cardenas surpassed the mayor, using more than twice the number of gallons over the last two years as typical property owners in their parts of town.
In fact, a review of Department of Water and Power documents shows that at least nine of the city’s 18 elected leaders used higher than average amounts of water -- sometimes a little, other times a lot -- over the last two years.
Delgadillo, the largest user, consumed 2.7 times as much water at his home near Hancock Park as similar owners in central Los Angeles -- 890,120 gallons compared to a median of 328,524, according to figures provided by the DWP.
During that period, Delgadillo’s water service was shut off briefly after he and his wife failed to pay their utility bill.
The DWP said it was too early to tell if any officials had cut back since the mayor called for greater conservation in June.
In a series of interviews over the last week, elected leaders were quick to say that water consumption depends on several factors, including geography, climate, lawn size, the number of people at a residence and the use of swimming pools or Jacuzzis.
Still, conservationists stressed the importance of public figures displaying thrifty ways as the city confronts shrinking water supplies and the driest season on record.
“Elected officials should lead by example,” said Craig Noble, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It is really hard for the public to take these kinds of exhortations to heart if the people who are telling them to conserve are not doing it as well.”
The stakes throughout Southern California are high this year, given what water officials have described as unprecedented dry conditions.
That is why Villaraigosa held a news conference in June, urging Angelenos to cut their water use by 10%. Speaking at a municipal golf course in the San Fernando Valley, the mayor said conservation was a top priority because high temperatures and record low rainfall had combined with an unusually small snowpack in the eastern Sierra Nevada, a key source of water for an increasingly thirsty city.
“Los Angeles needs to change course and conserve water to steer clear of this perfect storm,” Villaraigosa said then.
But DWP records show that Villaraigosa has been contributing to that storm. He and his family used 386,716 gallons of water at their Mount Washington home in the year before they moved to Getty House in October 2005, according to records and interviews. By contrast, typical property owners with similar-sized lots in that area used about 209,000 gallons.
Villaraigosa blamed his comparatively high water use at Mount Washington on gophers that chewed holes through a rubberized drip-irrigation system installed beneath his hillside backyard to protect against erosion and to ostensibly save water.
“We were unable to determine there was a leak. It’s underground,” he said. “We intended to conserve water by purchasing a drip water system.”
Villaraigosa said he did not notice increases in his water bill because his wife handled that chore. “I didn’t have access to those bills,” he said.
When Villaraigosa moved into Getty House, the city-owned manor in Windsor Square already had a record as a water guzzler.
The 22,000-square-foot property, which includes a backyard fountain, a tennis court and lush landscaping, used nearly twice as much water as residential lots of similar size during the year before the mayor moved in.
After Villaraigosa arrived, Getty’s water use rose to more than twice the volume of similar properties. Villaraigosa and his aides explained that the expansive house serves as a private residence and public venue and is regularly used for official city events that attract hundreds of visitors.
City officials said that low-flow toilets and showers were installed as part of an extensive restoration in the mid-1990s and that a high-tech irrigation system was added last month to conserve water.
Only five blocks from Getty House, Delgadillo has struggled unsuccessfully to curb water use at his 88-year-old home on a corner lot that is fringed with large trees, rosebushes and other lush greenery.
Delgadillo’s backyard sprinkler system and his house have “had innumerable leaks over the past few years,” said spokesman Nick Velasquez, adding that Delgadillo and his wife, Michelle, have “worked to identify and repair these leaks, and continue to recognize the importance of water conservation.”
Even as the Delgadillos used substantial amounts of water, they saw their service shut off last year when they failed to pay their utility bill. The service was resumed after they paid.
“Like many families, my family tries to pay its bills promptly,” Delgadillo said in a statement. “Sometimes, when there are oversights and the bills aren’t paid on time, we get notice, and we remedy the situation.”
The Times obtained water records for Delgadillo and the other officials under the California Public Records Act. The data are public only because city leaders hold sway over the municipal utility’s policies.
Water use by two of the 15 council members, Jan Perry and Herb Wesson, could not be gauged because they live in multiunit buildings where it was impossible to determine individual consumption. Not enough data were available on the water use of a third member, Richard Alarcon, because he joined the council only in March.
The officials’ water consumption was calculated using two sets of figures: The DWP first provided The Times with the number of gallons used by each official. Then, for comparison, the agency provided the median usage for lots of similar size in the general vicinity of each official’s residence. That method allowed officials who were living in warmer areas, like the San Fernando Valley, to be evaluated against properties in their own region rather than against cooler areas such as San Pedro, where water needs can be less.
The data reveal that some City Hall leaders who portray themselves as conservationists have water-use habits that contradict that image.
Cardenas, for example, appeared alongside Villaraigosa at the June news conference calling for residents to reduce their water use. But compared to typical customers in the Valley, he used more than double the amount of water at his Panorama City home over the last two years.
He attributed the high level to his packed house: His family of six was joined by five additional relatives for a 14-month span between 2005 and 2006.
But Cardenas said that his two Labradors also were culprits, repeatedly chewing off sprinkler heads in the backyard, causing water to leak and gush. Cardenas has since given one of the dogs away and said he was trying to train the other to stop chewing. “But dogs will be dogs,” he said.
To conserve water, Cardenas said, he converted more than half of his backyard this summer to concrete, paving stones and plants that require less water. He now has five sprinkler heads, down from 15. And he said he waters only at night.
“This is going to be a wake-up call for us council members and all the people of L.A.,” Cardenas said. “Even though we try to conserve water, we can all do a better job.”
For some officials, conservation and appearance must be balanced: Councilman Dennis Zine said he waters only three times a week at his West Hills home but makes sure to maintain the large frontyard because it’s “not good for a City Council member to have an unkempt lawn when you’re trying to establish a good quality of life in your community.”
Some city leaders are relatively light consumers, including Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who used less water proportionately at his Crenshaw-area home than any of his elected colleagues over the last year -- only 35% of what was typical for properties of similar size.
Parks’ chief of staff, Bernard C. Parks Jr., said the frugal use of water reflects his parents’ busy lifestyle. “You’ve got two people who are conscientious over water use and also aren’t home that often,” he said.
City Controller Laura Chick used less than average amounts of water, as did City Council President Eric Garcetti and council members Jack Weiss, Ed Reyes and Janice Hahn. (Weiss actually used about four times the amount as Chick, but still ranks among the most water-thrifty when compared to his Westside neighbors.)
Chick said she installed cactus and other drought-resistant landscaping at her hillside home in Silver Lake to save water. “I’m really a fanatic,” she said. “I don’t let the water run when I’m not using it.”
But Chick and other officials acknowledged that other factors may have contributed to their low water use. Chick, Garcetti, Parks and Reyes, for example, have no front lawns. Chick and Hahn also are empty nesters.
“I can’t compare to someone who has kids and does the laundry every day,” said Hahn, who lives on a San Pedro hillside overlooking the ocean.
As for those city leaders who use more than their share of water, they can look to Villaraigosa for guidance. The news release he distributed at his June news conference offered “10 simple ways to conserve water.”
Among the tips: take shorter showers, install “smart” sprinkler systems, stop using toilets as trash cans and fix leaky pipes.
Times staff writers Matt Lait and Doug Smith contributed to this report.