Why one California city can’t seem to conserve water

The lawn is green outside the Civic Center in El Monte, where the City water utility has fallen short of its conservation target.
(Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times)

The greenest lawn in El Monte may well be the patch of grass in front of City Hall.

At a time when state water officials are urging residents to allow their lawns fade to gold or offering rebates to tear them out, El Monte’s city-operated water utility has yet to reduce the number of days residents can water because of severe drought.

While three other water agencies that serve portions of the San Gabriel Valley city have limited lawn watering to just two days a week — shriveling grass and saving water in the process — El Monte’s municipal water operation has been listed among the six worst-conserving suppliers in the state.

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Instead of achieving a state-mandated 8% water reduction, El Monte missed that target by 17 million gallons in June, or almost 23 percentage points, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.

As a result, state water officials plan to contact the agency to discuss corrective actions. If problems persist, the city could face fines of $500 to $10,000 a day, officials say.

On Friday, however, City Manager Jesus Gomez defended El Monte’s performance. He said its customers use less water per capita than surrounding communities, adding, “residents are conserving.”

Nevertheless, neighborhoods that fall within the city’s water district have noticeably greener lawns than those served by the privately owned water utilities of Golden State Water Co., San Gabriel Valley Water Co. and California American Water.

On Friday in the city of about 116,000 residents, children played on inflatable water slides and in plastic wading pools. An elderly woman watered her front yard in the scorching afternoon sun using a hose with no nozzle. She left the water running as she told reporters in Spanish that she hadn’t heard of any water rules from the city.

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From one street to the next, residents had different assumptions of how much water they could use. Some said they weren’t supposed to water their lawn more than twice a week, others were unaware of any rules, and many said that the only things they knew about the drought were what they saw on TV news.

“I’m just trying to save my flowers,” said Martha Centeno, who has lived in El Monte for 23 years. The city serves roughly 23,000 water customers, according to the state water board. In 2009, the first year of the drought, El Monte passed a stage 2 “emerging shortage” conservation plan, but has yet to upgrade to a stage 3 “moderate shortage” or stage 4 “high shortage” plan.


Under its stage 2 plan, residents are asked to refrain from hosing down sidewalks and driveways and may water their lawns only between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Gomez said the city is in the process of adopting a stage 4 drought plan, which would prohibit the washing of sidewalks and driveways and limit lawn watering to only two days a week, among other actions.

The City Council has twice failed to approve the proposal. Mayor Andre Quintero said the process has been “absolutely frustrating” and that he is perplexed as to why it hasn’t passed.

The issue is scheduled to come before the council again Tuesday. It has been downgraded in urgency so that it requires only three votes out of five to pass but would take longer to go into effect.


“It will take 30, maybe 60 days to implement,” Quintero said.

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Meanwhile, in neighborhoods served by other water agencies, residents have already been warned not to water more than twice a week, some since April.

Ralph Nunez, 63, a retired housing inspector for the city of El Monte, has lived in his home on Venita Street for 31 years. People in his neighborhood are very aware of the drought, he said, and he credits Golden State, their water supplier.


Nunez is redoing his beloved 500-square-foot yard to be more drought-friendly. Golden State has also been helping him install more efficient indoor devices with their rebate program.

“I figure if we don’t conserve, they’d start penalizing us instead of finding a solution,” he said.

Toby Moore, water resources manager and chief hydrogeologist for Golden State, said the company serves 160 customers in El Monte, in addition to other Los Angeles County communities.

The company began restricting lawn watering in April, and it instituted a rationing program July 1.


Most water providers in Southern California have moved to limit lawn watering to two or three days a week, as 50% to 60% of all summer water use is outdoor watering, Moore said.

“That’s where you have the opportunity to cut back,” Moore said. “When we went to the two days of watering, we saw a large reduction in use. We know it’s effective.”

While El Monte’s city manager said he hopes eventually to limit lawn watering, he points out that city water customers already use less water than residents of neighboring communities.

In June, city water customers used an average of 64 gallons per person per day. By comparison, San Gabriel Valley Water Co. customers — residing in multiple cities — used 69 gallons and Golden State customers used 90. California American customers used 125 gallons per person per day, according to state data.


City water customer Scott Yu, 45, said he knows little about El Monte’s rate of water consumption. The private consultant said he has yet to hear from the city about conserving water and vaguely recalls talk that water rates might go up.

But when he noticed some of his neighbors had cut back on watering, he said he followed suit. He cut down watering to 10 minutes a day from 20 and waters at night to avoid evaporation.

He said he thinks his neighborhood has been doing its part.

“Everyone is saving a little bit more here and there,” he said.

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