Anger drives hunt for ‘criminal’ water guzzler during California drought

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As residents cut water use, even the rich fury at the mysterious Wet Prince of Bel Air, who used 11.8 m gallons in one year

Dean Gamburd has been a Bel Air resident all his life. Ordinarily, he has nothing but good things to say about his neighborhood, one of the most affluent in Los Angeles, where the streets are lined with opulent houses and well-tended flowerbeds. Jennifer Aniston, Nicolas Cage and Kim Kardashian have homes here. Its a nice place to live.

But today Gamburd, a former pistols consultant in his 60 s, is angry. Very angry. Its criminal, he says, sitting at a table outside Starbucks. Theres no other word to use.

The subject of his ire is not some hardened crook or local tearaway, but an unknown resident who has been dubbed the Wet Prince of Bel Air. This anonymous person has recently been outed for using an astonishing 11.8 m gallons of water in one year while the rest of the state is struggling to tackle one of the worst droughts in living memory.

The Wet Prince is the biggest known residential water consumer in the country, according to records obtained by the Centre for Investigative Reporting in California. In the 12 months to April, they used enough water to sustain 90 average households or flush a toilet 20,000 periods every day.

Its hard to imagine how someone could use so much water, says Max Gomberg, climate and conservation director at the State Water Resources Control Board. Its appalling. What are they doing on that property?

The city authorities have refused to identify the culprit, citing data protection issues. But, just like Dean Gamburd, many of the other residents of Bel Air are seething.

Its selfish and self-indulgent says Kate Stensland. Whats the bottom line? For these people it seems to be: Well, its not me , not my world, it has nothing to do with me.

A woman walks her puppy on the drought-stricken mounds above San Francisco. Photo: Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images

Jerry Brown, the governor of California, declared a country of emergency last year, and in April enforced a mandatory 25% cutback on water use. That means any outdoor watering that causes runoff( excess water running down a pavement for instance ), or cleaning your automobile with a hose can land you with a $500( APS3 32) fine.

Public information campaigns have exhorted Californians to do everything to help, from limiting their toilet flushing to putting a bucket in the shower to catch overflow to water their plants. The campaign has been a success: in August, the state authorities said urban clients had cut their employ by 31%.

But well-heeled residents in the wealthier parts of Los Angeles often choose to pay the penalties simply in order to keep their swimming pool full and their landscaped gardens lush. Bel Air is home to 19 clients pumping more than 2.8 m gallons a year. In Beverly Hills, 32 clients used that amount or more.

Many of LAs multimillionaires have several properties across the globe and might not be aware of any leaks. Whatever the rationale, their water intake has a deleterious impact.

The situation is really bad, says Gomberg. We have communities who have literally run out of water because the wells have run dry.

Los Angeles is a city built on desert that relies on water sourced hundreds of miles away from the Colorado river, the Delta in northern California and the snow pack of the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains.

We have the lowest snow pack in 500 years, which is a one-third of our water supply, says Gomberg. We lost 22 m trees because of the stress brings with it from the drought and because the wildfires have been so much worse because theres no moisture. Fish are dying because the water in the river is not there. Over 10,000 people are out of work because hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland have been left fallow because of the lack of water supply.

Faced with this grim situation, the residents of Bel Air have taken matters into their own hands. The Los Angeles Times has reported the existence of a drought posse who scour spacecraft maps and trace neighborhood trough flows. There is even talk that one inhabitant is use a camera-equipped droning to identify the water guzzlers.

No one yet knows who the Wet Prince might be, but Bel Air is not a place where anyone does anything by halves. A billionaire called James Goldstein, for instance, has recreated a tropical jungle in the gardens of his mansion.( The house itself has been used as a backdrop for a Snoop Dogg and Pharrell Williams music video and Rihanna held her birthday party there this year .) Theres no doubt that maintaining a tropical jungle in a desert climate probably requires a fair amount of water.

Gamburd knows of several homes where the fountains are left flowing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Walking around Bel Air, one is immediately struck by the lushness and verdancy of its vegetation.

There is the near-constant sound of percolating water from behind high hedges which shield the more impressive homes from public position. On the street, parked between the Porsches and Range Rovers, are vans bearing the insignia of pond maintenance companies.

Maureen Levinson, a member of the Bel Air Beverly Crest Neighbourhood Council, nevertheless insists that most residents have engaged in water conservation efforts. The bigger fear, she says, is the construction of super-sized luxury homes in the area( locally referred to as giga-mansions ).

These development projects include excessive number of ponds and water features, says Levinson. She cites one instance where the city authorities have approved five massive ponds for a single family dwelling.

If the city wants to curb the excessive water usages, we need to push and support our city council for altered in building codes and regulations and to scrutinise the overall consequences of out-of-scale, new speculatively built, commercial-sized single family dwellings currently under construction.

Back at Starbucks, Gamburd says the 11.8 m gallon water guzzler could be one of several people. I dont believe hes the only one, he said.

A uniformed custodian has started watering the flowerpots in front of us. He is carrying a bucket which is only half full. He stops at one pot, bends down, presses the clay with his thumb to check the moisture and then moves on without watering it. Across the street, in the gardens of the mega-rich, the decorative fountains continue playing.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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