Damon Ayala patrols the streets of drought-stricken Los Angeles every day, inspecting the sidewalks. Every time he sees a puddle, he stops.
He’s part of the city’s Department of Water and Energy team that deals with hundreds of community complaints filed by neighbors about water wastage each week.
“It’s not extreme, but we want them to look at it,” he says of a pool of water.
“Looks like they have drip irrigation on that side. So it could just be a bad connector.”
Ayala’s patrol comes as California and the western United States are hit by a severe, multi-year drought.
Scientists say global warming caused by human activity, including the uncontrolled burning of fossil fuels, is creating a greater number of extreme events.
With reservoirs and rivers at historic lows, Los Angeles authorities have implemented water restrictions, such as: For example, limiting lawn watering to just eight minutes twice a week.
Ayala jots down the addresses of properties where he finds evidence of violations. The first violation triggers a warning.
“Often they don’t know about the regulation and that’s our job to educate them,” he said.
Repeat offenders will be fined between $200 and $600.
“We’re not really looking for their money – it’s not bringing us any more water. We’re trying to achieve behavioral change,” he said.
“That way we can capture the water savings from those changes.”
After a fifth infraction, a device is installed that physically restricts a household’s supply, although Ayala says the step was rarely necessary.
“We’ve had serious drought situations in the city of Los Angeles in the past, and citizens have responded,” he said.
“And we expect them to respond this time, too.”
– ‘Logical choice’ –
The Water Department says it’s starting to see results.
Officials noted a decrease in water demand in residential areas in June compared to the same month last year.
But if the drought worsens, more permanent changes to the city’s landscape could become necessary.
Famous for its rows of palm trees, Los Angeles is also traditionally known for its lush, green lawns maintained with automatic sprinklers.
Residents are increasingly replacing their thirsty lawns with plants native to this desert region.
“If we think about how much water is used in a residential area, over 50 percent is actually used outdoors,” said Pamela Berstler, chief executive officer of G3 Garden Group, an urban landscaping company.
She and her colleague Marianne Simon give courses as part of a city program to encourage Angelenos to swap their lawns for alternatives.
Gabriel Golden and Danielle Koplinkase of South Los Angeles joined the program a few years ago.
“The environmental impact of watering a lawn, not only in the middle of a train, but also in a very dry climate, made this an obvious choice,” they said.
“We also tried to inspire our neighbors and community by going into a drought-tolerant and native garden.”
Native plants like the California oak and flowers that need just a few drops of water a week to thrive now adorn the couple’s garden.
“There are parts of Southern California where they’ve reduced watering to one day a week,” Simon said.
“And the reality is that these types of gardens would do just fine with that amount of water – in fact, they could do with less – but our traditional lawns can’t survive on that.”
– “Myopic” –
Other popular alternatives are artificial grass or gravel, although Simon emphasizes the environmental benefits of maintaining some form of vegetation.
“The problem is that we’re so short-sighted and so narrow in our vision that we can only see how we’re conserving water,” she said.
A planted area can be “easily 20 degrees” Fahrenheit (10 degrees Celsius) cooler than a gravel substitute, and “there’s an opportunity to hold rain when we get it so we can replenish aquifers.”
As she speaks, a nearby sprinkler turns on under the blazing California sun, spraying a lawn during prohibited hours.
When the thermometer hovers around 97 degrees Fahrenheit, water that falls on the withered, uneven grass and drips down the sidewalk evaporates within minutes.
“It’s heartbreaking to see, but it’s also a lesson,” she said, pointing to the withered garden.
“This should be our past and this should be our future,” Simon added, looking back at the native plants.
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