Study in Brown: The Mixed Messages of Water Conservation

The couple in Glendora whose brown lawn was the subject of media hyperventilating has, I hope, moved on in their lives. (The house in photo above is not theirs, by the way.) The media's fondness for irony, the public's readiness for sympathetic outrage, and the web's infinite capacity to make the outrageous ever new is going keep their story going without them. Too bad that story isn't the one you heard.

At least, that's how Glendora City Manager Chris Jeffers tells it. In a letter to California CityNews, a news site for local governments, Jeffers outlines Glendora's water conservation history and explains why conservation doesn't have to turn Glendora's lawns into dust bowls. I wish him well.

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After more than 30 years in municipal public information, I know how persistent a "Catch 22" story can be. And I know how hard it will be to explain Glendora's water conservation rules and they how work. The same communications problem faces every city in the state. (The Public Policy Institute of California offers some perspectives here on lawns and drought.)

City officials with long memories will recall the drought of the early 1990s and their fear that strict constructionists of the rules would point out every slip of the hose, every puddle on the driveway (so much easier today when social media so highly values righteous indignation).

For one thing, water conservation doesn't have a one-size-fits-all solution, however much the California Water Quality Control Board might wish otherwise. Rules in one city will differ from those in another in detail and in practice.

Conservation plans that manage scarcity through multiple strategies can seem counterintuitive when described in a three-minute news spot or in an angry posting to Facebook.

Glendora's conservation program is much like other cities in Southern California. In response to worsening drought, Glendora:

  • Imposed Stage One of the city's water conservation plan back in 2008. In line with most cities, the first phase of conservation is educational more than punitive. There are restrictions, however. Hoses can't be left running. Restaurants can only serve water on request. Hotels and motels must offer guests the option not replace towels and sheets daily. Irrigation water can't be allowed to run off into the gutter. These measures and others, backed by public awareness, have cut water consumption in Glendora by 12 percent since 2008.
  • Issued warnings at 895 properties in FY 2103-2014 where Stage One restrictions were being violated. Like all cities, Glendora prefers "soft power" approaches to property maintenance issues. Warnings precede citations. Only two properties were subsequently cited, according to the city manager, for repeated violation of the city's conservation rules.
  • Created incentives to install water conserving bathroom fixtures, irrigation systems, and landscaping. The city blended its own funds with the Metropolitan Water District's conservation rebate programs. If you live in Glendora and buy in Glendora, you might save as much as 80 percent of the cost of a new toilet. In the FY 2013-2014, 396 property owners took advantage of the city's enhanced rebate program.
  • Opened three demonstration gardens (a fourth is in development) to educate homeowners on establishing low-water use landscaping that is both drought tolerant and good looking.
  • Mandated that new construction in Glendora plant less than 15 percent of a property's open space with grass.

"We have not cited anyone -- ever -- for having a 'brown lawn'," the city manger wrote. "It is not a violation of our code to have a 'brown lawn'." It is a violation, it seems, to have no vegetation at all.

And that was the problem as Glendora saw it. Not a "brown lawn" but a yard turning into a dust bowl from lack of care -- not from a virtuous lack of watering but from an apparent disregard for the neighborhood. And so, Glendora's code enforcement division sent a warning letter.

I've seen letters like that, and they could be better written to short-circuit misunderstanding as they tell the recipient the risks of not complying. But how do you sound helpful while mentioning fines and penalties? It isn't easy.

In today's worsening drought, a genuine awareness of what your city is doing in response is needed. And your city needs to be attentive to the least nuance of what it says when giving direction to residents. This is no time for mutual misunderstanding.

About the Author

D. J. Waldie is the author of "Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir" and "Where We Are Now: Notes from Los Angeles," among other books about the social history of Southern California. He is a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times ...
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