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Drought: Rich Southern California cities top water use rankings, while poor cities hover at the bottom

A gardener walks past a row of sprinklers watering plants and foliage in front of an apartment complex in South Pasadena, California on Jan. 21, 2014. Water is running off the plants and onto the street. This kind of wasteful use of water could soon be permanently banned in California.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
A gardener walks past a row of sprinklers watering plants and foliage in front of an apartment complex in South Pasadena, California on January 21, 2014.

Residents of higher-income cities in Southern California use more water than their lower income neighbors — sometimes a lot more — an analysis of water and census data by KPCC has found.

A comparison of water use by 44 local municipal water districts shows the thirstiest cities were well-off, including Beverly Hills, Monrovia and Chino Hills. The 10 cities that used the least water per person all have median household incomes below the state median of $61,094. The comparisons are based on March water use, the most recent data available.

The starkest comparison may be between the Orange County enclave of Villa Park and the city of Seal Beach, 20 miles away.

Residents in Villa Park—where the median household income tops $155,000—used more than 330 gallons of water per person each day in March, the most recent month for which data is available.

In comparison, Seal Beach's residents used 52.4 gallons per day. The median income in Seal Beach is $51,000, according to the Census.

Water use in Villa Park is more than quadruple the rates in Los Angeles, Long Beach and Anaheim. It's the third highest rate in the entire state.

Jerry Villander, the district's General Manager, acknowledges water use in Villa Park is "tremendously higher" than in other areas.

He said that's because most homes are on lots that exceed 25,000 square feet. Many homes have not just a lawn, but also an orchard. Villander estimates that, during summer months, landscaping accounts for about 70 percent of water use in Villa Park.

Like most California cities, he said Villa Park will be targeting outdoor watering to try to comply with mandatory cuts.

"To get past this drought, they can put their landscapes on a little bit of life support," he said.

The State Water Resources Control Board notes that richer people "generally use more water." Landscaped lawns use plenty of water, the board's website said, and high water prices don't hit the wallets of the wealthy as hard, giving them less reason to conserve.

But water use isn't a clear cut case of the 1 percent versus the rest of us. Several factors impact water use, including climate, density and water prices, and the board discourages comparing water use between districts.

The water use of wealthy Californians has been a flashpoint since the state entered a fourth year of its historic drought.A UCLA study found, "Wealth was the most reliable predictor of water use" within the city of Los Angeles.

Compiling data about these claims is difficult, since California's water districts don't always neatly line up with the boundaries of its cities. KPCC's analysis stuck to water districts whose boundaries closely match a single city (you can read more about our methodology here).

You can explore the the data on the 44 cities we looked at in this interactive chart:

Not every wealthy city used inordinate amounts of water — nor was every more modest city a water miser.

Forty miles west of Villa Park, in Manhattan Beach, incomes are over $140,000 per year per household, but residents used on 92 gallons per person each day in March, barely a quarter of Villa Park's usage.

Residents in Lynwood, where household incomes are a modest $41,000, used 70 gallons per day - which is pretty low, but not as low as Fountain Valley, where incomes are nearly double, and residents eek by on a mere 54 gallons per person, per day. 

Mandatory cuts

Cities across the state have been screaming about Jerry Brown's call to cut urban water use by a quarter. After the Water Board released targets for each agency, several wrote the agency in protest for the percentages they'll be required to cut:

  • Arcadia's Public Works Services Director wrote that "we are perceived as 'water wasters' in the media." Per capita use in Arcadia is 115 gallons per day, well above most districts in the state. It's facing 36 percent cuts.
  • Chino Hills water manager Mark Wilery wrote: "To hold the agencies responsible for the habits of the customer is ridiculous." Customers use 106 gallons per day in Wilery's district. The water board has put Chino Hills in the list of cities that will have to cut 28 percent.
  • South Pasadena Mayor Robert Joe wrote twice to urge the board to impose mandatory cuts on agricultural users. It also is in the 28 percent tier.

The Serrano Water District, which primarily serves Villa Park, has been ordered to cut water use by 36 percent, the highest tier. The district also serves around 200 homes in neighboring Orange.
"People are upset; they say they can't do it," Villander, the district's General Manager, said. His office has received calls from angry residents who say their private property rights are being violated.

His district mailed out information on water conservation to residents, which he said paid off. He said use in April was 17 percent lower than the same month last year. (Statewide April figures have not yet been released by the water board.)

He's not sure that the district will be able to cut use by 36 percent.

"This is completely uncharted territory," he said.