Long Beach sees results with water conservation effort

This winter, California water officials had hoped for a wet January and for a deep snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They got neither. Now some Southland water managers are making rationing plans. KPCC's Molly Peterson reports that one city believes it's found another way.

Molly Peterson: Long Beach does not have a bottomless reservoir or secret tank farm. It's just using less water. How much less?

Kevin Wattier: We're using the same water in 2008 as we did in 1978.

Peterson: Long Beach Water's general manager Kevin Wattier knows all about the puny Sierra snowpack. He knows about pitiful rainfall this winter – and the court ruling that cut water that used to flow south from the Sacramento Delta. But Wattier knows something else, too – rationing water doesn't work very well.

Wattier: In '87 to '91 we had every other day. Y'know, if you had the even street number, it was Monday, and on the other side of the street it was certain days. Those things – they're very difficult to manage and they cause a lot of public opposition.

Peterson: About a year-and-a-half ago – as supplies dropped – Long Beach decided to tell its customers water shortages are here to stay.

Wattier: Therefore we have to have a permanent lifestyle change and a permanent reduction in consumption.

Peterson: The city's water use last month was nearly 20 percent below it's 10-year average for January. Long Beach is campaigning to make water running down sidewalks and extra long showers a social evil.

[YouTube clip – Dog the Water Copper]

Peterson: Long Beach Water's tactics can be low-brow, but some are high tech, too.

Ryan Alsop: We go where the people are.

Peterson: Ryan Alsop, who designed the water department's campaign, says these days that's the Internet. Long Beach has a YouTube channel for sharing videos that preach water conservation.

The department socially networks using Twitter and Facebook. And the 38-year-old Alsop varies ads for different markets – like this one for an alternative weekly paper.

Alsop: You see this one where the statue is taking a leak? It says, help prevent premature evaporation. No watering in Long Beach between 9 o'clock a.m. and 4 o'clock p.m. You gotta know your audience.

Peterson: Long Beach also asks its customers to report water waste. Alsop says the response has been big. Five-thousand phone, Web, and e-mail reports have yielded letters to offenders that ask them to knock it off.

Alsop: It is a nicely worded letter, non-threatening. But I think it's been the X-factor in getting a lot of people who aren't aware engaged.

Dennis Smith: Call me a tipster, call me a snitch, call me a neighborhood spy.

Peterson: Most reports stay anonymous, but mortgage broker Dennis Smith is proud to rat out overwatering – even when the City of Long Beach is doing it. He's sent in more than 20 e-mails so far.

Smith: It's the middle of the day, it's a hot day, and the water's just running off into the gutter, and they've got two broken sprinkler heads shooting four feet into the air, and I've pulled over right then and there and with my Blackberry e-mailed it in just right from the spot.

Peterson: Smith is a huge booster for Long Beach's water conservation campaign. But he worries its slow drip approach might not be enough for scofflaws.

Smith: Honestly, I think they need to be more aggressive.

Peterson: Me and about a half a dozen pigeons are sitting in the parking lot of the Rally's in Signal Hill – it's on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Cherry. This place is one of the few cited since Long Beach started water conservation measures.

Citizen tipsters have called in and said, these people are watering their hard surfaces. I'm not seeing anybody with a hose, but the driveways are wet a couple hours after they usually do it, according to the complaints.

Wattier: I like to say we've probably taken 10 percent of the fat out of a system that has 30 to 40 percent waste in it.

Peterson: Long Beach Water GM Kevin Wattier says encouraging residents to cut use and snitch on those who don't is a better strategy than punishing water wasters. Long Beach residents are using about two-thirds the water the rest of Southern California uses each day. Wattier says his department will stick with their approach – as long as it works.