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California's water restrictions aren't impacting people equally

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Cities across California are tightening water restrictions as the drought drags on. But those restrictions are not hitting people equally. While some neighborhoods are turning brown and dusty, others are as lush as they've ever been. Caleigh Wells from member station KCRW reports.

CALEIGH WELLS, BYLINE: Listening to a police scanner might sound like a strange hobby...

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UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: Twelve forty-five, you can cancel.

WELLS: ...But not to Ben Kuo. In his free time, he also investigates public databases that measure things like wildfire damage and tree growth. That's how he became a self-appointed water cop.

BEN KUO: One of these things that you can look at is called moisture index.

WELLS: After the drought restrictions went into effect, he noticed something strange from a satellite he was monitoring.

KUO: Rather than just this big smear with blue and red and yellow, you can actually go in and look at a specific property and see what it looks like.

WELLS: A household that's not watering the yard might show up orange on the satellite data. One that's watering daily will show up blue. Kuo found an entire neighborhood lit up bright blue in the city of Camarillo, about 60 miles up the coast from Los Angeles.

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WELLS: We went to check it out and found a gardener mowing a green lawn.

KUO: They've been watering now very recently. I think the sprinklers must have been on a few minutes ago here.

WELLS: Kuo stands inside a neighborhood called Leisure Village. It's a 55-and-older community.

KUO: When you look on the satellite map, all this strip here - and we can probably walk a little bit into the neighborhood - is all bright, bright, bright, bright blue, more so than anywhere else in the county.

WELLS: There's no sign of drought here. Why?

KUO: That's because they are using the reclaimed water.

WELLS: It's one of the few neighborhoods that can siphon water from a nearby treatment plant. It's cheaper. Plus it comes with a huge benefit.

CHUCK KISKADEN: Currently, we're not subject to any restrictions on using the nonpotable water for turf that we have.

WELLS: Chuck Kiskaden is president of the board at Leisure Village. He explains They're not breaking the rules. They're just lucky enough to have access to recycled water. It makes up the majority of their water use.

KISKADEN: We could tap into it in the agricultural areas to use the nonpotable water for all of our irrigation needs for the turf and the plants.

WELLS: But just a few blocks away, it's a much different situation.

DEBRA GALLEGOS: We are very reliant on state water.

WELLS: Debra Gallegos with the city of Camarillo says residents are only allowed 15 minutes of outdoor watering once per week. Three violations means $600 in fines. A fourth violation might mean the city takes your water pressure away.

GALLEGOS: We do have a water patrol that actually goes out the during the day and the evenings at this point and monitors the residents' usage.

WELLS: Camarillo realtor Sandy Seekins says the lucky residents with recycled water access have a major advantage in the market.

SANDY SEEKINS: So you have greener grass, so you have more curb appeal. So the buyer is going to see that. And of course, you're going to buy something that's prettier.

WELLS: Seekins herself isn't so lucky. She lives in another part of town.

SEEKINS: Well, I started giving away certain plants that took a lot of water that I couldn't - I could not keep alive.

WELLS: One that isn't free from the toll of California's drought.

SEEKINS: If your question is, do I feel that it's fair? No. Your plants cannot survive on one day a week, 15 minutes a day. It's just impossible.

WELLS: That inequality is a short-term solution. Another inequality - some more affluent neighbors just pay the fines. One long-term solution may be to supply more people with recycled water. Until that happens, this neighborhood remains an enviable water-use unicorn. For NPR News, I'm Caleigh Wells in Camarillo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Caleigh Wells