LOS ANGELES — For all the doomsday proclamations about the historic drought that has this state in a chokehold, here is what Californians have done to save water: not much.
In five months since the drought emergency was declared, Californians have cut their water consumption only 5 percent compared with recent years, according to state officials — a far cry from the 20 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown called for in January.
So, faced with apparent indifference to stern warnings from state leaders and media alarms, cities across California have encouraged residents to tattle on their neighbors for wasting water — and the residents have responded in droves. Sacramento, for instance, has received more than 6,000 reports of water waste this year, up twentyfold from last year.
Loretta Franzi has called the Sacramento water-waste hotline “a number of times” in recent months.
“You can hear people running their sprinklers when it’s dark because they don’t want to get caught watering when they’re not supposed to be — it’s maddening,” said Ms. Franzi, 61, a retiree. “You can tell the people who are conserving because their lawns are brown. The lawns that are really green, there’s something wrong.”
Sacramento has issued more than 2,000 notices of violations since the start of the year — including citations to some of Ms. Franzi’s neighbors — and the city is part of a region that has reduced its water consumption 10 percent from previous years, the highest percentage of any region in the state. (Not every water agency in the state responded to the board’s survey, though most did.)
“It’s becoming a competition to not have the greenest lawn anymore,” said Dave Brent, the director of utilities in Sacramento. “You want to have a lawn that’s alive but on life support.”
It does get personal. Some drought-conscious Californians have turned not only to tattling, but also to an age-old strategy to persuade friends and neighbors to cut back: shaming. On Twitter, radio shows and elsewhere, Californians are indulging in such sports as shower-shaming (trying to embarrass a neighbor or relative who takes a leisurely wash), car-wash-shaming and lawn-shaming.
“Is washing the sidewalk with water a good idea in a drought @sfgov?” Sahand Mirzahossein, a 32-year-old management consultant, posted on Twitter, along with a picture of a San Francisco city employee cleaning the sidewalk with a hose. (He said he hoped a city official would respond to his post, but he never heard back.)
Drought-shaming may sound like a petty, vindictive strategy, and officials at water agencies all denied wanting to shame anyone, preferring to call it “education” or “competition.” But there are signs that pitting residents against one another can pay dividends.
In Los Angeles, water officials will soon offer residents door hangers, which they are encouraged to slip anonymously around the doorknobs of neighbors whose sprinklers are watering the sidewalk. The notices offer a prim reminder of the local water rules and the drought.
The Irvine Ranch Water District, meanwhile, shows residents how their water consumption compares with that of other homes in the area — and puts labels on customers’ bills that range from “low volume” to “wasteful.”
“Not everyone realizes what a severe drought we’re in, or understands how their actions affect the whole system,” said Felicia Marcus, chairwoman of the State Water Resources Control Board, which issued the report on water saving. “Just showing people what they’re doing vis-à-vis their neighbors motivates them. Shaming comes in when you’re worse. You want to be as clever as your neighbor.”
Of course, asking neighbors to inform on one another does come with drawbacks.
In Santa Cruz, dozens of complaints have come from just a few residents, who seem to be trying to use the city’s tight water restrictions to indulge old grudges.
“You get people who hate their neighbors and chronically report them in hopes they’ll be thrown in prison for wasting water,” said Eileen Cross, Santa Cruz’s water conservation manager. People claim water-waste innocence, she said, and ask: “Was that my neighbor? She’s been after me ever since I got that dog.”
Ms. Franzi said that in her Sacramento neighborhood, people were now looking askance at one another, wondering who reported them for wasting water.
“There’s a lot of suspiciousness,” Ms. Franzi said. “It’s a little uncomfortable at this point.” She pointed out that she and her husband have proudly replaced their green lawn with drought-resistant plants, and even cut back showers to once every few days.
One of her neighbors, a woman in her 90s, is convinced that Ms. Franzi reported her to the city.
“Right now, she’s out watering the grass with the hose in the middle of the day, looking over her shoulder at me like, ‘Are you going to report me?’ ” Ms. Franzi said.
(Ms. Franzi insisted that she did not report this neighbor, saying she did not feel comfortable issuing a complaint about someone she knew personally.)
On the flip side are people who have tried to turn dead, brown lawns into a source of pride, planting signs atop them with slogans like “Gold is the new green.” Even the lawn at the State Capitol has been allowed to die.
The challenge of persuading urban Californians to cut back is particularly difficult, said Ms. Marcus of the State Water Resources Control Board, because they do not see the fallow fields and dry reservoirs across the state.
With water still flowing very cheaply from the taps and lawns still green here, many people around Los Angeles said they were not especially concerned about running out of water, whatever the dire warnings, and doubted their own showers or dishwashing would have any discernible effect.
“I might turn the faucet off when I’m brushing my teeth or something,” said Ragan Wallake, 34, a resident of the lush neighborhood of West Hollywood. “But I don’t feel like that three seconds of turning off the water is going to make a difference.”
She has a point. Most homes in Southern California have already been outfitted with efficient shower heads, toilets and garden hoses, making it harder for residents to significantly reduce their water consumption than it was during the last severe drought a quarter-century ago.
Even those who are already water-conscious can occasionally benefit from guilt-laden reminders, though.
Femke Oldham, a graduate student who has studied resource conservation at the University of California, Berkeley, was walking with her fiancé on a sunny weekend when they passed a few children throwing water balloons. She suggested it would be fun to get some of their own.
He shot back, “Femke, we’re in a drought.”
“It made me feel guilty for wanting to use water in a way that was not necessary,” said Ms. Oldham, 29.
Alina Weinstein, 27, a web developer in Los Angeles, has also been called out for small acts of water waste; one of her co-workers reprimanded her for letting the kitchen faucet run for just a moment after she had finished washing her cup.
She has since reformed. Still, she does not believe the city pipes will run dry anytime soon.
“I’m more afraid of earthquakes rather than water running out in my faucet,” she said.
Robert B. Gunnison contributed reporting from Sacramento.