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Drought Panic, Guilt, Finger-Pointing Put Hollywood to the Test

Even an impending El Nino can't satiate California's parched landscape or 1-percenters' unquenchable thirst as tattletales abound and bold-faced names (Charlize Theron, Jamie Lee Curtis) rip out grass amid a scorched-earth war between the haves and have-mores (Kim Kardashian).

This story first appeared in the Oct. 2 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Among the Hollywood executives and celebrities who have taken California’s drought to heart are Charlize Theron, who has a yard filled with plants from her native South Africa; director Dean Parisot, who put in a less-thirsty tufted meadow in Hancock Park; and Sally Field, who has gone California native in the Pacific Palisades. Director Jan de Bont (Speed) is letting his yard go brown before replanting with climate-appropriate landscaping; Anne Archer replaced her Brentwood lawn with gravel and olive trees (“It’s much more beautiful than before. It’s like Tuscany,” she says); and Napster co-founder Sean Parker recently redid his front yard in Holmby Hills with a mix of succulents and drought-tolerant grasses. Santa Monica’s Jamie Lee Curtis and director Christopher Guest have been fully drought-tolerant since the big one in the 1970s. Says Curtis, “I emptied my swimming pool in 1972, and we ripped up everything that takes water and planted natives that don’t need much. We’ve put down decomposed granite. I also have these Washing-Up rubber tubs from Normann Copenhagen in every bathtub, every bathroom. So when you run the shower to get it to hot, that gallon is collected and that’s what I water my garden with.”

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That’s a short list of industry insiders who actively have taken measures to cut down on water use during the worst California-area drought in, some say, more than a thousand years. But Hollywood, of course, is not exactly of one mind. For every Barbra Streisand, who, after photos of her expansive green lawns went viral in May, announced that she has cut her water use more than 50 percent — by installing underground cisterns for collecting rain, among other measures — others have not been as responsive. Those who have been #droughtshamed online (or accused of being #grassholes, a term that’s taken off in the Pacific Northwest) include Kim Kardashian and Jessica Simpson. Statistical and anecdotal evidence suggest that there are untold numbers of Tom Sellecks (who this summer faced allegations that he improperly took water from a public hydrant for his estate in Thousand Oaks and reached a private settlement with the water district) in the green hills of Beverly, Bel Air and Holmby, biding their time, hoping to ride out the drought and be saved from dry lawns and empty pools by the upcoming “Godzilla” El Nino.

As one producer who has a Bel Air mega-estate with a sweeping yard tells THR in an email: “We have kept watering, just watering less. I wish we were more virtuous. This is a huge problem for our state, but we haven’t let our grass die. Feel guilty, but there you have it!” These days, guilt may be the least of what faces half-measure responders. In a town rife with characters, a new breed, the water snitch, is on the rise as tattletale hotlines ring with neighbors squealing on neighbors. Jon Christensen, journalist-in-residence at UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, notes: “What happens during every drought in California is that people start blaming each other and pointing fingers.” And within this current landscape of conflict, guilt and anxiety, a new kind of wealth gap between the haves and have-mores is emerging as landscapers and developers rip out grass for their drought-responsive five-percenter clients, but wait for water-reduction orders that rarely materialize from their heads-in-the-sand one-percenter clientele.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were shamed on Twitter in May for their expansively green estate in Hidden Hills.

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While front yards in areas such as Culver City, West Hollywood and Silver Lake are now a patchwork of green lawns, brown lawns (now euphemistically called “golden”), gravel gardens, desertscapes, tufted meadows and California native plantings, many yards in places like Beverly Hills look as green as ever — including some parks that are “jewels of the city,” Beverly Hills Parks commissioner Robert Anderson recently said (the city is letting other less prominent parks go dry). Experts say affluent homeowners are sticking with their thirsty lawns — which can use as much as 60 percent more water than a landscape planted with lavender, rosemary, California lilacs, proteas, red-barked manzanitas and succulents — because of concern over reducing property value, or not wanting to give up a lush landscape that is part of the heritage of older, wealthier neighborhoods.

Many are turned off by the rise of ugly droughtscaping — hastily placed construction-grade gravel with measly plants done by companies that offer free services in return for government rebate checks — which is “a rampant, big problem,” says landscape designer Jerry Hritz. “It’s like bad plastic surgery. Better maybe just to have never done anything.” (Rebates are now suspended across L.A. except for Santa Monica and Beverly Hills due to lack of funds; $340 million was disbursed via the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s program before the money went dry.)

Neighborhood “group-think” compounds the foot-dragging: One Hancock Park homeowner who didn’t want to be named says she plans to make changes but not quite yet: “There’s a handful of people on our street that have started changing their gardens. I’m watching to see how it takes as I make my final decision.”

A Beverly Hills sign explains the appearance of so-called “golden” lawns.

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The hesitation and reluctance are playing out in water-use statistics around the L.A. area that show a divide within a city that’s already highly stratified socioeconomically. While the L.A. Department of Water and Power hit its target for residential water reductions in July, down 21 percent from the same month in 2013, Beverly Hills missed its reduction target by 32 percent. This is after instituting two-days-a-week, for-only-eight-minutes watering restrictions (compared with three days a week for L.A.). Its target was higher (32 percent) than L.A.’s because Beverly Hills residents are some of the highest per capita water users in the state. While L.A. city residents averaged 77 gallons a day per capita in July and residents in Pasadena 107.5 gallons, Beverly Hills residents chugged 157.5 gallons a day. (The DWP doesn’t release per capita use for areas within the city, so figures for Brentwood or Bel Air are not available.)

UCLA’s Sustainability resident Christensen cites a recent UCLA report that shows wealthier neighborhoods on average consume three times the water of less affluent ones. The study also found that when it came to voluntary cuts in water usage, residents who use less water responded more than users of more water, noting, “Those who use the most water and can best afford new landscaping are not at the forefront of shifting to the needed new outdoor water use.”

Top L.A. landscapers are seeing this borne out among their clients. Says one anonymous landscaper: “There are those who seem not to care because money can buy water. One large lawn very visible on the street has a monthly water bill of as high as $28,000.” According to Mark Tessier of Mark Tessier Landscape Architecture, his very richest clients — the one-percenters — “are talking about taking out their lawns, but they’re not doing it yet. Not in my circles.” By contrast, his well-off but not massively wealthy clients are making more changes: “Everyone is asking what they can do to help. They are exceeding expectations.” Marilee Kuhlmann of Comfort Zones Garden Design adds: “I think the world has been divided into two: the people who couldn’t care less, who think, ‘I’ll use whatever I want because I can,’ and then people who say, ‘I want to cut back,’ and they’ve cut back so far beyond what everyone else is doing.”

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Because of those clients who go above and beyond, water-conscious landscape designers on the Westside are describing the demand for their services as extraordinarily high. Kuhlmann says her phone rings three times a day with people looking to hire her. “It’s crazy,” says Joel Lichtenwalter, who with Ryan Gates heads Grow Outdoor Design and has worked with Jaime King and Vincent Kartheiser. Where Lichtenwalter once was the one to suggest that clients reduce the size of their lawns, “often the conversation now opens with a client saying they want to get rid of it — let’s do a native grass meadow instead.”

Some landscape designers even have been turning down jobs that don’t align with their principles and that involve too much water-hungry turf. “I told a client installing a new sod lawn that that’s something I’m not going to do for the time being,” says Jon Goldstein of Jonny Appleseed Landscaping, who has done gardens for NBC’s Robert Greenblatt, Sheryl Crow, Mark Wahlberg, Bryan Cranston and the new Bel Air Hotel.

This lawn between Beverly Hills’ Bouchon and Montage Hotel has gone brown.

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And amid a spec-home building boom on the Westside, some ultra high-end builders are forsaking wall-to-wall turf. In November, hedge funder Steven Cohen bought a spec house in Beverly Hills for a whopping $30 million, conspicuously planted with artificial turf. On Doheny Drive above Sunset, there are six newly built houses, and not a single one has grass in the front yard — they instead feature drought-tolerant plantings. While some may have expansive lawns in the back, away from drought-shaming eyes, spec builders tell THR that’s not necessarily the case. “In the luxury new construction market through Los Angeles, we are seeing a trend of yards being replaced with outdoor entertainment areas,” says Paul Lester, founder of The Agency realty company in Beverly Hills, citing larger decks and built-in seating areas. “There is no organic yard area now.”

For owners of established properties without built-in drought-tolerant elements, panic and confusion can reign. Goldstein recalls clients who went into overdrive after receiving a city of Beverly Hills notice saying they needed to cut water usage by 36 percent: “They thought they needed to get a water truck to start bringing water to their house. They were so terrified about their investment in their garden. They must have spent $1 million over the years.” He allayed their fears, giving them a plan that included fine-tuning irrigation and a rain-capture tank that holds 2,000 gallons under their sculpture garden. Adding to the overall muddle: Many rules vary across municipalities. Who knew, for example, that Beverly Hills forbids artificial turf in front yards?

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Neighbors who snitch add spice to the stew of anxiety. “I called the DWP and told them there was a hose draining a huge amount of water from someone’s driveway. The water waste stopped the next day, and I still check every day. It’s been more than a month, and I do feel it was due to me,” says one anonymous “water rat” in Laurel Canyon, responding to a new website, SaveWater.ca.gov, unveiled by the state in July, that allows residents to report water wasters. In L.A., you can dial 311 with a water-waste report, and the SaveWater site even encourages people to report restaurants that serve water auto­matically (instead of by request). It seems to be working: In May, 29,000 Californians reported water waste to the government.

But it’s the potential abatement of conscientious responses — including snitching — in response to a predicted huge El Nino that concerns experts most of all. By now, Southern California residents are well aware that climate scientists are predicting a 95 percent chance that this winter’s El Nino will be another Godzilla Nino, like the one in 1997-1998, with a possible 30 inches of rainfall, double the norm for the state. (El Nino, in fact, already has begun, with isolated showers and pockets of high humidity.) But winter’s storms, along with some early success — Californians cut back water usage by 31 percent in July compared with the same period in 2013, exceeding the 25 percent executive order by Gov. Jerry Brown in April — won’t save L.A. One strong El Nino year won’t come close to adding the 75 inches of water needed to replenish to pre-drought levels. “It is safe to say that it will likely take multiple, consecutive wet seasons to replenish California reservoirs and groundwater,” says Dr. Christopher Solek, senior scientist at the Council for Watershed Health. “And we would not only need several consecutive wet years, but several years where substantial snowpack persists into spring to slowly replenish groundwater aquifers to provide long-term relief from drought.”

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One thing is certain: If the drought continues, more stringent government measures are coming down the pike. Water districts across L.A. all have next-phase plans that will kick in if additional cuts are needed. Those include rate hikes (Beverly Hills could see a 10 percent rise in water prices by the end of the year), measures such as requiring covers on all pools to reduce evaporation (or forbidding people to fill them with potable water), higher surcharges for homeowners who don’t meet their water-reduction targets and stiffer penalties for infractions such as watering on nonallowed days and washing cars. In Beverly Hills, repeated violations can lead to a misdemeanor charge and a $1,000 fine. “I don’t think the fines are high enough to really make a difference,” says Rene Emeterio, owner of Specialized Landscape Management Services. “I don’t think governments have enough enforcement out there yet.”

The worst-case scenario for Southern California, says Andy Lipkis, founder of TreePeople, an advocacy group that promotes a sustainable ecosystem for L.A., is what happened in Australia during its record drought. “They started with restricted watering days, then ultimately elevated watering restrictions to hoses — no sprinklers — then they went further to no potable water for irrigation. You had to be using rainwater and gray water, and that really drove a lot of powerful changes.” Actor Bill Pullman, who recently planted more drought-tolerant fruit trees (pomegranates; figs; feijoa, the pineapple guava), uses a gray water system and added pearlite and absorbents into his soil to hold water, remains skeptical: “As far as societal change in L.A., it’s like trying to turn an aircraft carrier.”