Here is a story we found by Steve Scauzillo of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune:
“Swimmin’ pools, movie stars.”
The notable refrain from the “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme song describes it best. Not everyone who moves to California can become a movie star. But if you have enough money, you can get a house with a swimming pool.
Pools are the aquamarine line between affluent and low-income Los Angeles. Getting a house with a pool was a status symbol for the TV Clampetts and it has been that way in real life for more than 60 years as pools became de rigueur in pop-up suburban enclaves such as Northridge, Downey, West Covina and Upland after World War II.
But now, in the third year of a stubborn drought, some people in Southern California are questioning their existence, saying private swimming pools may be a waste of scarce water.
With stricter water-use restrictions coming from Sacramento last week, are swimming pools changing from L.A. icon to P.C. embarrassment?
Not exactly. Realtors still say many potential buyers search for a house with a pool. Water officials say pools can be managed to minimize evaporation and they’re not as wasteful as lawns or leaky toilets. Pool contractors say new pool orders are up as the recession wanes and temperatures rise.
But some homeowners are hesitating, thinking twice, the picture of filling a backyard hole with thousands of gallons of Northern California water against a parched L.A. backdrop causing consternation. The condition could be described as pool guilt.
“It is a psychological deal,” said Jim Norwood, president of the California Pool and Spa Association, who said salesman are hearing the whispers at home improvement shows and garden shows and are taking phone calls from reticent customers looking to cancel orders.
“People with orders will call them back and say they are having second thoughts,” Norwood said. “They don’t want to look like the bad guy.”
Norwood predicts the pool-building business may not spike as expected at the end of a down time. “It won’t be a normal year because people are thinking about the drought,” he said.
However, Marty Rodriguez of Century 21 has seen no difference in clients’ attitudes toward pools. “Now, in the summertime, houses with pools are really popular,” she said. “The drought doesn’t seem to be affecting it.”
THE DEMOLITION MAN
Steve Espenschied is in the business of reverse pools. He tears them out and fills them in.
“As compared to a few years ago, we are definitely busier as far as filling in swimming pools,” said Espenschied, CEO of Kennah Construction Inc. of Huntington Beach, during an interview last week. Kennah fills in about two swimming pools a week all over Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The reasons cited include: they are too expensive to maintain; older homeowners no longer use them; they want room for a vegetable garden or space for a room addition; it’s bad feng shui, he said.
The drought has been mentioned only a few times, he said. “It may be in the back of their minds somewhere.”
Norwood said the brickbats began flying his way in January and February, when the State Department of Water Resources announced a zero allocation for Southern California, which has since inched up to 5 percent.
But media reports of people throwing dirt in their pools were exaggerated, like the waste of water, he said. His group began a lobbying campaign aimed at stopping restrictive laws from being passed against pools and educating pool owners on conservation practices.
While the drought may cut into some business, he points out that California is still the largest market for pools and spas anywhere in the United States.
“There is demand whether we like it or not or whether it is good for water or not. It is part of the California lifestyle,” Norwood said.
BIRD’s EYE VIEW
You don’t have to be gazing out of the window of a 747 on its approach to LAX to realize there are a lot of pools in L.A. A click on say Northridge in Google Earth shows a plethora of turquoise dots that when you zoom in, reveal pool after backyard pool for blocks on end.
But it was the out-of-the-window aerial view of L.A. swimming pools that bothered Benedikt Gross so much he got together with geographer Joseph K. Lee and they began counting all the pools in central and southwestern Southern California.
“His impression was L.A. was a desert, super dry, and with these water issues, seeing the endless pools from the airplane was weird,” Lee said during an interview from his office at the University of British Columbia. “He wrote down in his notebook: How many pools are there in L.A.?”
When the two met at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they decided to start the count. They used Geographic Information Systems satellite imagery from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Then they ran the raw data through crowd-source workers at Amazon Mechanical Turk.
After two years of analyzing data from space, they came up with a number: 43,123 pools in the L.A. Basin roughly from San Pedro to the Hollywood Hills and Malibu to Alhambra, without including the San Fernando Valley, half of the San Gabriel Valley nor the Inland Empire.
According to their study, “The Big Atlas of LA Pools,” Long Beach had the most pools, 2,859, followed by Rancho Palos Verdes, 2,592; Beverly Hills, 2,481, and surprisingly, Downey, 2,078.
Pools were most common in more affluent communities, less common in lower socioeconomic areas. For example, the pair counted zero pools in Watts, 13 in Boyle Heights and 23 in Lennox. Do pools drain resources?
“Environmentally, it is a huge deal how much water these people are using,” Lee said. The California Urban Water Conservation Council in a 1999 study concluded that for 194 homes with swimming pools, the addition of a swimming pool increased demand for water between 22 to 25 percent. Adding an automatic sprinkler system for a lawn increased demand between 54.9 to 60.6 percent.
However, the same study concluded pools use about as much water per square foot as irrigated lawns. Getting rid of grass for a pool maintained with best practices can save water in the long run, said Penny Falcon of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.
Evaporation from green grass and from pools amounts to 55 inches per year in the Inland Empire, said Celeste Cantu, general manager of the Santa Ana Watershed Project Authority.
But a pool cover can stop 90 percent of evaporation, Norwood said. So-called bubble covers cost about $200, he said.
Falcon listed other water-saving tips: don’t fill it up so high in order to prevent water loss from splashing; use pleated filters that reduce backwashing; if heated, lowering the pool temperature reduces evaporation; plant shrubs as wind barriers to prevent water wave overflow.
She intimated it is harder to get L.A. residents to abide by the three-day-a-week outdoor watering restriction in place. L.A. is in Phase 2, which also includes restrictions on restaurants serving water only when customers ask.
L.A. is not considering Phase 3, which would prohibit filling of swimming pools, she said.
Some cities have enacted no pool-filling laws, such as Alameda County and Santa Cruz. The city of Santa Barbara requires pool covers, according to the State Water Resources Control Board.
New conservation measures handed down from the board Tuesday do not include restrictions on swimming pools. They require local agencies and/or cities to ban hosing down sidewalks and driveways, stop run-off from lawns from reaching the street and gutter, require shut-off nozzles when washing a car at home, and recycled water in decorative fountains. Violators can be subject to fines of $500 a day.
Not even the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the largest water supplier in the state, restricts swimming pools. When asked about the topic, MWD spokesman Bob Muir said the district does not comment on such matters.
The California Public Utility Commission includes restrictions on swimming pools for the private water agencies it regulates, but they are voluntary, Norwood said. His organization has been lobbying Sacramento to lighten up on the swimming pool industry and is making headway.
“We stemmed some of that tide but we are still seeing things come up,” he said.