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Officials go with the flow

Despite his plea to save water, mayor and other leaders are heavy users.

August 10, 2007|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa challenged residents this summer to "change course" and slash their water use by 10% in the face of a historic drought.

But records show that the mayor and several other top city officials have long been heavy water users themselves.

In Villaraigosa's case, even if he had made a 10% reduction at the two homes where he has lived since winning election in 2005, he still would have used nearly twice as much water as comparable properties in the vicinity.

City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo and Councilman Tony Cardenas surpassed the mayor, using more than twice the number of gallons over the last two years as typical property owners in their parts of town.

In fact, a review of Department of Water and Power documents shows that at least nine of the city's 18 elected leaders used higher than average amounts of water -- sometimes a little, other times a lot -- over the last two years.

Delgadillo, the largest user, consumed 2.7 times as much water at his home near Hancock Park as similar owners in central Los Angeles -- 890,120 gallons compared to a median of 328,524, according to figures provided by the DWP.

During that period, Delgadillo's water service was shut off briefly after he and his wife failed to pay their utility bill.

The DWP said it was too early to tell if any officials had cut back since the mayor called for greater conservation in June.

In a series of interviews over the last week, elected leaders were quick to say that water consumption depends on several factors, including geography, climate, lawn size, the number of people at a residence and the use of swimming pools or Jacuzzis.

Still, conservationists stressed the importance of public figures displaying thrifty ways as the city confronts shrinking water supplies and the driest season on record.

"Elected officials should lead by example," said Craig Noble, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "It is really hard for the public to take these kinds of exhortations to heart if the people who are telling them to conserve are not doing it as well."

The stakes throughout Southern California are high this year, given what water officials have described as unprecedented dry conditions.

That is why Villaraigosa held a news conference in June, urging Angelenos to cut their water use by 10%. Speaking at a municipal golf course in the San Fernando Valley, the mayor said conservation was a top priority because high temperatures and record low rainfall had combined with an unusually small snowpack in the eastern Sierra Nevada, a key source of water for an increasingly thirsty city.

"Los Angeles needs to change course and conserve water to steer clear of this perfect storm," Villaraigosa said then.

But DWP records show that Villaraigosa has been contributing to that storm. He and his family used 386,716 gallons of water at their Mount Washington home in the year before they moved to Getty House in October 2005, according to records and interviews. By contrast, typical property owners with similar-sized lots in that area used about 209,000 gallons.

Villaraigosa blamed his comparatively high water use at Mount Washington on gophers that chewed holes through a rubberized drip-irrigation system installed beneath his hillside backyard to protect against erosion and to ostensibly save water.

"We were unable to determine there was a leak. It's underground," he said. "We intended to conserve water by purchasing a drip water system."

Villaraigosa said he did not notice increases in his water bill because his wife handled that chore. "I didn't have access to those bills," he said.

When Villaraigosa moved into Getty House, the city-owned manor in Windsor Square already had a record as a water guzzler.

The 22,000-square-foot property, which includes a backyard fountain, a tennis court and lush landscaping, used nearly twice as much water as residential lots of similar size during the year before the mayor moved in.

After Villaraigosa arrived, Getty's water use rose to more than twice the volume of similar properties. Villaraigosa and his aides explained that the expansive house serves as a private residence and public venue and is regularly used for official city events that attract hundreds of visitors.

City officials said that low-flow toilets and showers were installed as part of an extensive restoration in the mid-1990s and that a high-tech irrigation system was added last month to conserve water.

Only five blocks from Getty House, Delgadillo has struggled unsuccessfully to curb water use at his 88-year-old home on a corner lot that is fringed with large trees, rosebushes and other lush greenery.

Delgadillo's backyard sprinkler system and his house have "had innumerable leaks over the past few years," said spokesman Nick Velasquez, adding that Delgadillo and his wife, Michelle, have "worked to identify and repair these leaks, and continue to recognize the importance of water conservation."

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