California's 1-Percenters Are Flush With Water as Rest of the State Remains Parched

Celebrities and moguls aren't doing without while the region suffers from a disastrous drought.

Photo Credit: eteimaging/Shutterstock

While most of California worries, cuts back and braces for the worst of this epic drought, the Golden State's 1-percenters are staying flush with water. While some are obeying public water restrictions and having it shipped in by the truckload to their mansions in the tony exurbs of Santa Barbara County, others are just breaking the rules and paying hefty fines for not obeying local water restrictions.

Writer Ann Louise Bardach reported for Politico Magazine that tanker trucks filled with water make routine deliveries to the grand manors of the rich and famous, carting up to 5,000 gallons of water to the region's wealthiest residents. She also reports that Oprah Winfrey, one of Montecito's richest residents, gets water deliveries on a regular basis to keep things flowing at her 40-acre estate. Oprah, whose water bill from the Montecito Water District was almost $125,000 last year, according to Bardach, has cut her municipal water use in half this year, but she still needs massive deliveries of H2O to make it work.

Still, not all Montecito residents are relying on water shipments to make up the difference. They are just ignoring the restrictions.

More than 800 consumers in the water district have already been hit with penalties totaling more than $500,000 altogether, which means they wasted some 13 million gallons of public water, according to Bardach. One homeowner was reportedly hit with a $30,000 fine. And it's not only homeowners who are pirating the trickle of water the area gets from its aquifer; the Biltmore Four Seasons Hotel was hit with a hefty fine of nearly $50,000. There will be about $4 million in fines levied to Montecito Water District users this year, Bardach reports.

Meanwhile, California's drought has taken a significant turn for the worse. The U.S. Drought Monitor, a government-funded weekly map of drought conditions, reports that 98% of the state is experiencing a severe to exceptional drought, with 58% suffering from the harshest of drought conditions. All the state has been suffering from drought conditions since May, the first time in 15 years.

In July, California imposed statewide water-use regulations for the first time. State regulators approved stringent measures limiting outdoor water, including $500 fines for using an outdoor hose without a shut-off nozzle.

Montecito, a hamlet of some 9,000 residents, is one of the wealthiest enclaves in the U.S. Besides Oprah, the oceanfront community is home to Jeff Bridges, Drew Barrymore, Ellen DeGeneres, George Lucas, and Google executive chairperson Eric Schimidt among other notable celebrities and moguls. It has been under exceptional drought conditions for some time now, but it appears the community was not quite prepared for just how bad this drought would be. Bardach paints a picture of a water district desperate to appease its affluent clientele: 

"Last November, Tom Mosby, general manager of the Montecito Water District, warned that without drastic and immediate conservation—a 30 percent use reduction by all—the town would be plum out of water.

And then things got worse. In January, there was no rain. In February, Mosby announced that Montecito would begin rationing water. Part of the moratorium: a stop to the building of new homes—and heavens!— no new swimming pools. Residents with existing pools or spas were forbidden to empty and refill them with town water.

For the most part, residents have embraced the restrictions, allowing Montecito to cut its water usage by 48% and leaving vast aprons of yellowed lawns as evidence. A second five-acre property owned by Oprah—across the street from her estate—has gone to seed. Though a former water hog, Oprah is no longer. 'She is the poster child for us,' gushed Mosby in an interview. 'She’s doing her part.'"

But is Oprah the example of surrender and endurance the Montecito Water District wants to point to as a model? After all, cutting back on municipal water, but buying it elsewhere on the market is not really making a sacrifice. 

Curbed Los Angeles also reports that some of the residents of Montecito have tried to circumvent restrictions, like having a polo field re-designated as an agricultural area. Pat Nesbitt, the CEO of Windsor Capital has sued the water district, insisting that his estate qualifies for agricultural rules and rates because of his equestrian sports field. So far, Nesbitt has been unsuccessful.

Montecito, which is only served by a slim offshoot of a regional aquifer, might have to look at other options going forward, particularly if drought becomes an ongoing trend. It wants to join the city of Santa Barbara in restarting a desalination plant project that was shelved more than a decade ago. It would cost some $20 million to get the plant operating.

California’s 154 reservoirs are more than 60% below their historical average. Although this is not a record for this time of year, the state is more than a year’s worth of water short in its reservoirs.

The state's farmers have idled about 800,000 acres this year. As a result, consumers can be expected to pay more at the grocery store for a wide range of staple foods. The Department of Agriculture warns that “major impacts from the drought in California have the potential to result in food price inflation above the historical average.”

Editor's Note:An earlier version of this article did not give proper attribution to Ann Louise Bardach, the author of the Politico Magazine article. We regret not giving her the credit she was due and have corrected the issue. 

Cliff Weathers is a former deputy editor of Consumer Reports who also served as a senior editor at AlterNet. He was one of the first journalists to sound the alarm over the extreme dangers of fracking and the shipping volatile Bakken crude oil by rail. His articles on technology, green cars, alternative energy, water and sustainability have appeared in several publications, including Car and Driver, Playboy, Salon and Raw Story. Twitter: @cliffweathers.