Column: In Bel-Air, someone is using 1,300 gallons of water — per hour

The biggest water hog in California lives in Bel-Air and uses 11.8 million gallons a year.
(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)

This much we know:

California’s champion water hog lives somewhere in Bel-Air, guzzling more gallons per year — 11.8 million — than any other homeowner in the state.

Who is the culprit?

This we do not know.

A June 1 story by the Center for Investigative Reporting did not reveal the name or address, because the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power refused to turn over that information.

But let’s do some math.

Nearly 12 million gallons a year breaks down to about 1 million gallons a month and 32,000 gallons a day. That’s enough for 90 average households.


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While you’re letting your lawn die and flushing the toilet every three days because we’re in the midst of an epic drought, someone in one of the most affluent ZIP Codes in the country (90077) is hosing away 1,300 gallons of water hourly, and paying about $90,000 a year for the privilege.

You’d have to flush the toilet 6,400 times in a day to use 32,000 gallons.

About 135 people would have to each take a one-hour shower in one day, which is entirely possible, because some of these houses have 15 or 20 bedrooms and a couple dozen bathrooms.

I thought I’d take a drive to Bel-Air and see if I could locate the culprit. I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

Bel-Air didn’t just have the top residential water user in the state for the year ending April 1 — it had four of the top five, with Brentwood (3), Beverly Hills (2) and Westwood (1) rounding out the top 10. The DWP tells me it sent letters to the biggest gluttons, urging them to cut back, and plans to further investigate.


Sure enough, it was hard to narrow the list of suspects Tuesday, as I cruised the verdant hills.

I saw Tuscan villas, gated palaces and massive estates, many with lawns the size of football fields, lush gardens and forests of trees.

What I did not see was anything brown.

This is not the kind of neighborhood, by the way, where you can simply knock on the front door and ask people if they’ve heard there’s an epic water shortage. These are homes with security gates and Kremlin walls, and you’d need a helicopter to get a better look at how many swimming pools and vineyards are sucking up the state’s most valuable and scarce resource.

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And it’s not as if Bel-Air residents are easy to bump into on the street. All you see are gardeners, plumbers, professional dog walkers and the like.

You also see armies of construction workers toiling away on houses the size of aircraft carriers, including an 85,000-square-foot monstrosity going up on Airole Way and a 60,000-square-foot behemoth at the intersection of Bellagio Road and Stone Canyon Road, which, when completed, could end up making the 11.8-million-gallon guzzler look like a piker.

Downton Abbey isn’t as big as these places. Does anyone at L.A. City Hall ever say no to these developers?

Marcia Hobbs, a member of the Bel Air Homeowners Alliance and publisher of the Beverly Hills Courier, said the word is that one of the new homes under construction will have four swimming pools.

“One for each of the owner’s wives and their entourages,” she said, and she wasn’t kidding.

But despite the size of some properties, Hobbs wondered if the 11.8 million gallons a year was a mistake, or if maybe there’s a leak.

“I’m astounded,” she said.

Hobbs said that her own lawn in Bel-Air is now brown, and that she knows of homeowners replacing turf with rock or rosemary. She and her friends in the garden club just returned from a trip to Seattle, where they did some research on saving water by replacing lawns with roses.

Good for them, but a lot of people seem to be thumbing their noses.

“We have a place where true mega mansions are going in and literally billionaires are elbowing out millionaires,” said Travis Longcore, who teaches urban ecology at USC and is president of the Bel Air-Beverly Crest Neighborhood Council.

Longcore, who rents in Beverly Glen, said he has no idea who the biggest water hog is.

“But there is an incredible variation in the overall footprint between the average person in Los Angeles and the wealthiest of the wealthy,” he said.

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Longcore said the owners of such massive properties don’t pay the true social cost of stormwater runoff, infrastructure, the impact on the natural environment and “the degradation of fundamental earth systems.”

Stephanie Pincetl, director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, offered a similar view. “I think that since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, we have had a kind of disconnect of the top tier of people who make a lot of money, and the notion of social responsibility and the idea that we’re all in the same boat seems to have withered away,” she said.

In a study of voluntary and mandatory water conservation restrictions between 2000 and 2010, Pincetl said, lower-income customers conserved more than high earners.

She favors socking it to the guzzlers.

“The more you use, the more you pay, like a graduated income tax.”

That’s already in the works at LADWP, which could go from a two-tier system to four tiers. Marty Adams of the DWP told me that in the case of the highest user in Bel-Air, the $90,000 annual cost of water would rise to about $125,000.

That’s not enough. If you can pay $90,000 a year for water, I’m guessing you’d barely notice a bump like that.

What you would notice, though, is having your water service shut off, like DWP does to thousands of customers who fall behind.

I’d gladly volunteer to close that valve myself.

In the meantime, if you’ve got a hunch who the King Geyser of California water consumption might be, drop a dime and let’s flush him out.

Twitter: @LATstevelopez


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