On patrol with the drought police

Marketplace Contributor Nov 26, 2015

On patrol with the drought police

Marketplace Contributor Nov 26, 2015

California Governor Jerry Brown has called on cities to cut water use by 25 percent through next October. Already four Southern California water utilities, including Beverly Hills, are facing fines for failing to meet that mandate.

One place that has cut its water use sharply is Burbank, a city of roughly 105,000 residents just north of Los Angeles.

“We’ve taken a gradual but urgent approach to get people to cut back,” said Kapil Kulkarni, of Burbank Water and Power. “And that’s through a combination of the letters, the home water reports, the drought patrol and overall marketing information, banners throughout the city and ads, telling people that, ‘We are in a drought and here are some of the things you can do to cut back on your use so we as a city don’t get fined by the state.’”


Burbank is trying out several different approaches to get its roughly 105,000 residents to save water, including signs, banners and ads that educate residents about the drought. The utility is also using recycled water to irrigate landscaping. (Photo credit: Abbie Fentress Swanson)

Burbank began its water savings efforts in 2009. But Kulkarni said the city really ramped things up this summer. Now it’s got a drought patrol and new software that detects leaks within an hour. And it’s irrigating landscaped areas with recycled water.

Jack Corbett leads the drought patrol. Usually, he’s teaching 6th graders how to save water and managing the utility’s rebate programs for windows and air conditioning. On drought patrol, he’s looking for leaks, broken water mains and customers watering when they shouldn’t. The four-person patrol cruises the city’s 17 square miles at night, doing random inspections and driving to blocks where people have complaints.

On one tree-lined residential street near Burbank’s Bob Hope airport, Corbett slows to check out a pool of water on the sidewalk. The water is coming from a lawn in front of a small bungalow where a hose is attached to an oscillating sprinkler head. A man sees Corbett and darts inside.

“What this customer has done is he’s attached that oscillating sprinkler head to that garden hose, turned it on full blast hoping that that garden hose now will get his whole front yard, side yard and parkway. And it’s accomplished that, but it’s also accomplished watering down his whole front sidewalk and everything else as well,” Corbett said.

This is against the rules. The sprinkler is not only wasting water on the sidewalk and street – if the man had been holding it, the sprinkler would also have qualified as hand-watering and that’s not allowed on a hot day like this. Corbett won’t fine this customer but he will send a letter.

Drought patroller Jack Corbett hangs warnings listing Burbank’s water rules on residents’ doors. (Photo credit: Abbie Fentress Swanson)

Burbank resident Robert Einstein was out of town when he got an email from the utility saying that his home had a leak.

“I took it to heart,” he said. “I got home and I looked everywhere and I found one sprinkler that I guess the gardener when he was testing the sprinkler didn’t turn it off completely. And so it had a small but consistent leak, which must have been going on for days.”

The new leak detection software that Burbank Water and Power is investing in to the tune of $135,000 a year is called WaterSmart. Analyzing data transmitted from home meters, the software looks for irregularities that can pinpoint exact locations where water is being wasted. Residents can also use it to track their water use at home.

The new leak detection software that Burbank Water and Power is using is called WaterSmart. Residents can use the software on their smartphones to track water use at home. (Photo credit: Abbie Fentress Swanson)

“As many as 20 to 25 percent of homes have some sort of temporary leak during the course of a year,” said WaterSmart CEO Robin Gilthorpe. “And that leak might be somebody left a faucet on, it may be somebody ran over the sprinkler with a mower. Whatever it may be, these things really add up.”

With its drought patrol, new software and water recycling program, Burbank has reduced its overall water use by 24 percent, which is in line with its state-mandated target, and has saved 677 million gallons of water since June.

Beverly Hills has cut its water use by 20 percent, but it has to get to 32 percent to meet the state mandate because it used too much water to start with. The other water districts being fined by the state $61,000 for not saving enough are Indio, Redlands and the Coachella Valley Water District.


There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.