Environment & Science

Heavy water user La Cañada among cities that might have to cut usage by 35 percent

This sign sits at the corner of Oak Grove Drive and Foothill Boulevard announcing the city's pride, a block away from the entrance of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
This sign sits at the corner of Oak Grove Drive and Foothill Boulevard announcing the city's pride, a block away from the entrance of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Erika Aguilar/KPCC

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Maybe Southern California didn't get the memo.

Despite calls to save water, the region saw an an increase of more than 2 percent in use for February compared to the same month in 2013, according to a report released Tuesday.

Among the worst offenders is the small, sleepy foothills community of La Cañada Flintridge, which posted the highest per capita water use in Los Angeles County.

"I think now they'll start asking themselves why we have the dubious distinction of being ranked so high in our water consumption for such a small town and kind of a low key place," said resident Luke Strockis.

The Valley Water Company, which serves almost half of the city's 20,000 residents, found its customers used on average 230 gallons a person per day, nearly three times the state average of 77 gallons a day.

That puts the city in the position of possibly having to cut its water use by 35 percent of what it used in 2013 under a proposal from the state Water Resources Control Board. It's meant to achieve Gov. Jerry Brown's executive order to cut urban water use by 25 percent, and it puts the onus on communities like La Cañada Flintridge that use the most to cut the most. 

Strockis says he's doing his part to curb water use by putting drought friendly plants in his yard and he uses a system to water those plants with recycled washing machine water.

But he says he’s an outlier on his block.

He's certainly an outlier in the town where many homes still have idyllic lawns and gardens. Officials say 70 to 80 percent of La Cañada's water is used outside.

These homes are a big part of the problem, thinks business owner Yvonne Navarro.

"They’re like a mansion... six, seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms, huge yards. So it’s going to take triple the water."

According to census data, 95 percent of residences in La Cañada are single-family homes, and about two-thirds are worth over $1 million.

(Yvonne Navarro in her store Angel's Nest. It's one of the oldest businesses in town, she says.)

Navarro has owned Angel's Nest stationary in La Cañada for 13 years and says despite the on going drought, she never hears customers talking about water.

"I have people sit on the couch... you’d think I’m a psychologist because they just talk and tell everybody their problems and water never comes up!”

La Cañada Flintridge is also a wealthy community, a fact linked to higher water usage by a recent UCLA study. Median household income in La Cañada is $160,771.

Twenty to 50 percent of the city's water comes from underground aquifers; the rest is supplied by the Foothill Municipal Water District.

Richard Atwater, president of the Water District's board of directors, says part of the city's high water usage is due to how these things are measured on a per capita basis.

Similar foothill cities like Glendale and Pasadena also have water-guzzling neighborhoods but also have other types of land use to offset them.

"You think about the office space, and the high density of apartments and condominiums, that’s how it brings down its water use," Atwater said.

Those higher density buildings have less landscaping and typically use less water, but La Cañada Flintridge doesn’t have many of those sorts of buildings.

(Richard Atwater installed drought friendly landscaping around his home in La Cañada.)

Still, he says ground water levels in the area have been drained by 30 percent. No matter how you measure it, the city needs to start conserving more, and it can't just be homeowners.

Schools, golf courses and cemeteries will all  have to reduce their water use under Gov. Brown's recent mandate.

"We need to get the message out," said Atwater.

"We need everybody's help to get the publicity out that this is an emergency and it's a very serious situation."

Atwater says his agency needs to do more too. As a start, it’s offering cash rebates for those who install drought friendly landscaping and water saving appliances.

It’s holding a meeting with the local businesses next week to talk about ways of saving water.

In that way, La Cañada Flintridge is like any other Southern California town: a community suddenly forced to rethink its relationship to water.

How does your city compare? Check in our water use tool: