LaMont Carr cruised slowly past the green, neat lawns north of Montana Avenue until he spied the telltale sign of a possible crime in progress.
He stopped, inspected the evidence and confirmed his suspicion:
The leaking valve of an outdoor sprinkler was sending a steady stream of water trickling down the street--at an hour when watering is prohibited under Santa Monica's emergency water-conservation law.
"You see a crime being committed--water being wasted--then we want to know about it," said Carr, the city's newly appointed water cop.
A former campus police officer, former college basketball star and holder of a law degree, Carr is the key person in charge of enforcing the city's new set of water-conservation measures.
As drought grips the nation, Santa Monica has joined Los Angeles, San Francisco and at least eight other cities across California in enacting laws designed to make residents and businesses reduce their water use.
For the first time in a decade, Santa Monica officials have a drought they consider serious enough to declare a "water emergency." Measures include restrictions on when people can water their lawns and a ban on hosing down driveways and sidewalks. Water-saving devices for commodes and showers will also be distributed for voluntary use.
But as Carr, 35, learned quickly, there can be some special obstacles to enforcing the new law in a city where about 80% of the residents are renters.
Middle of Dispute
On one of his first calls, Carr, whose official title is water conservation inspector, found himself caught in a dispute between landlord and tenant.
The tenant complained that her faucet had been leaking for five months and the landlord refused to spend the money to repair it. The leak was so bad that it would fill a 5-gallon drum in 15 minutes, she said. But the landlord contended the tenant had tampered with the faucet to make it leak. Finally, he was given a week to repair it or face a surcharge, Carr said.
Carr admits such confrontations don't make his job any easier. But he hopes to convince people that water conservation is in everyone's best interest.
"We are not trying to be Big Brother," he said. "We are just trying to explain that California and many other states are experiencing a drought and (Santa Monica) is trying to take an active part in helping. We are only asking people to be reasonable."
For now, Carr is trying to get the word out about the new law and what water-conservation measures must be taken. He is spending much of his time driving around and issuing warnings and advice when he sees water being wasted. Although he originally planned to issue citations to abusers, he has been instructed to wait until more people are familiar with the law.
Under the emergency ordinance, passed unanimously by the City Council on June 14, residents can water their lawns only every other day and not between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., hours when evaporation is fastest. People with odd-numbered addresses water on odd-numbered days; people with even-numbered addresses water on even days. No "excessive" watering or runoff is allowed.
Underground drip irrigation systems are exempt if owners obtain approval from the city's General Services Division.
Hosing down sidewalks, driveways and patios is prohibited, and water cannot be used for decorative fountains unless the fountain has a recycling system or uses sea water. Swimming pools can only be filled once, and may be refilled only once after being emptied for repairs.
Residents can wash their cars only if they use a hand-held bucket or a hose with a shut-off nozzle. Commercial carwashes are exempt because they efficiently use only half as much water as individuals do to clean their autos, officials said.
Drinking water will not be served at restaurants unless patrons request it.
After one warning notice, violators may be fined a surcharge of $20 or 20% of the water bill, whichever is greater.
The city has also set up a water-conservation hot line, a special telephone number people can call to complain or ask questions. The number is 458-8459. In his first couple of days on the job, Carr received about 20 calls.
On a sunny morning last week during a routine drive in the northern part of the city, Carr stopped to inform Johan and Ingeborg Maters that the leaking valve on a sprinkler outside their condominium complex had to be fixed.
They had been on a trip and had noticed the leak shortly before Carr arrived, they said. They promised to have it repaired immediately, and so it was within two days, Carr said.
He then encountered a new problem. Talking to several gardeners, he found that many commute long distances to Santa Monica, and are only on the job during the hours that watering is banned.
"It's a Catch-22 for them," he said. "Gardeners have to work, too."
So he promised to see whether part of the law should be changed or relaxed.