Seeking waste, LA's top water cop roams the city streets

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If he’s a cop, he’s definitely not undercover. When Rick Silva hits the streets for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, he does it in a marked city car and a bright yellow vest.

On a recent Tuesday morning he cruises past homes and businesses in Atwater Village. He all but promises me that we’ll see some water waste. “There’s no clear evidence of any violations right now, but I’m sure we’ll find some,” he says, his sharp eyes trained on blades of grass, looking for moisture reflected in the early-morning sun.

Silva’s the head of the DWP’s Water Conservation Response Unit. Dozens of men and women like him around the state are deployed by at least 45 local authorities to enforce watering restrictions, educate consumers about water waste, and promote conservation. In Los Angeles' water world, he's top cop.

Water conservation has been the law of the land in Los Angeles since 2009. Mandatory restrictions prohibit sprinklers during the hottest parts of the day. The rules permit odd-numbered addresses to water Monday, Wednesday, Friday; even-numbered buildings get Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. Either group should run sprinklers before 9 A.M, and after 4 P.M. Hand watering is okay, but you’re never supposed to hose down sidewalks and driveways.

Silva says these and other restrictions have made people take notice of their water use.

“It’s not like we had to remind everyone we’re still in a drought,” he says. “They’re well aware of it. And that’s a positive thing. That’s why people want to comply with the ordinance.”

It’s not long before Silva slides our white city car into a spot neatly behind a pickup truck. A building on the opposite corner likely watered on the wrong day; the sprinklers are still up, and burbling slightly, as a trickle of water nudges a leaf along the gutter.

Silva takes several pictures then heads into the office to talk to the manager of a small insurance company. He stresses his visit is purely informational, and some relief passes over the man’s face. “Thank you, I’ll be sure we get that changed,” he says.

When Silva was starting out at the DWP, a major drought in the 1990s made a lasting impression.  “‘Cause you realize water’s finite,” he says. “There are no new sources water. Back then they were talking about hauling a glacier down from Alaska or something. That’s how desperate some of the ideas were.”

For the most part, Southern California is better prepared for the current drought. The region has more water in reserve, Silva points out, and water-saving toilets and appliances are more common. Still, awareness of water rules remains hit or miss.

Silva pulls up in front of a crossfit gym.  Where the street meets the sidewalk, a small river of water runs north away from the freshly watered section of grass in front. Even on watering days excessive runoff is bad news.

He doesn’t approach the people moving weights around or chinning a bar. “My guess is they might not know about the watering, who’s controlling the watering,” he says. “It could be the landscaper.”

In these cases, Silva says a letter can work best.  

Since the beginning of last year, the DWP has sent out just under 400 letters to first-time violators of the water ordinance. He includes his phone number so people can call him directly. And yes, people do.

“More than anything they want to explain what the problem was,” he says of those callers. “Usually it’s to offer explanation. Sometimes it’s to find out about more efficient watering. They just want to make sure they’re not going to go to a penalty.”

They probably won’t, with this soft-touch enforcement strategy – a shift from what the DWP did during the last water shortage five years ago. Back then, the utility’s so-called “droughtbusters” program aggressively patrolled water use all over the city with meter readers and other DWP employees – anyone who spent time in the field.

“We had like 9,000 violations, a lot more violations,” Silva says now. “And we were using our workforce at that time to try to have reports of violations so, we have a lot of people out there.”

This time around, the DWP isn’t resorting to those measures. For one thing, the city’s water use dropped and has stayed down since the mandatory restrictions took effect. For another, Silva’s seen only 21 repeat offenders since last year – and of that group, nobody’s violated watering rules three times, which is when the financial penalties would kick in.

“We don’t want to make any enemies,” Silva laughs. “We want to just educate and make friends I think.”

Rick Silva doesn’t have a problem being called a water cop. But if he’s gonna be a cop, he wants to be more Officer Friendly and less Johnny Law. 

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