- - Friday, August 8, 2014

Nobody likes a tattletale, but snitching comes naturally to a certain kind of busybody. The remarkable drought in California has produced a new category of righteous snitches called “water vigilantes.”

They prowl through neighborhoods with smartphones, creeping through the shrubs and bushes in the dead of night looking for working sprinklers and wet lawns, reporting homeowners who ignore restrictions on the use of scarce water.

“There’s a perspective of, ‘I’m following the rules, so I should hold other people accountable for following the rules,’” the conductor of a social-media website tells Bloomberg News. “I wouldn’t call it tattletale. It’s more like civic responsibility.”

But others do call it tattling, and some of them warn that if they find someone creeping through their shrubbery at 3 in the morning, they intend to confront and challenge intruders. One citizen-vigilante has been roaming through neighborhoods in Sacramento turning off the water of those he presumes are violating water-saving rules.

“Somebody had the nerve to walk onto my property and turn my water off,” one homeowner in Sacramento tells a television interviewer. “I mean, you don’t know who lives here, you don’t know if it’s an elderly person or somebody who needs water to maintain medical equipment, and it scares me that they probably walked all around my property, looking for where the water [meter] was.”

The drought is taking both a physical and emotional toll on California. In the San Joaquin Valley, which runs from just above Los Angeles to Sacramento and produces nearly half of the vegetables, fruits and nuts consumed by the nation, hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farm land have gone unplanted this summer. Reservoirs have shrunk to a fraction of their normal size, lush green lawns have turned burned and brown under the daily onslaught of the sun.

Restrictions on water usage, enforced by $500 fines for washing driveways and sidewalks or allowing water from lawns to run into the streets, have worked in some places and not in others. In Folsom, a suburb of Sacramento, water consumption is down by 30 percent; in San Juan Capistrano south of Los Angeles, consumption is up by more than 35 percent over last year.

The restrictions are actually widely observed, and a green lawn can embarrasses a homeowner who waters at night on his designated watering day. Shaming works, too, even when it’s not necessarily warranted. Mike Budd, 26, an actor in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles, tells Bloomberg how his housemate “drought-shamed” him for washing his car with a hose without a shut-off valve, as required by drought rules. Now he’s a shamer himself, calling out lawn-watering violators with social-media postings three times a week.

“A $500 fine may have very little impact on someone who just wants to keep his lawn green,” he says, “but people around here do care about their reputations.”