Hot on the Trail of the Wet Prince of Bel-Air

A couple of guys who were allegedly up to no good, started making trouble in the neighborhood.
A couple of guys who were allegedly up to no good, started making trouble in the neighborhood.
JF10 / Flickr

Bel-Air is home to the biggest known residential water customer in California. In a report published last year, the Center for Investigative Reporting coined the nickname "wet princes" to refer to homeowners who use enormous quantities of water during droughts. The "Wet Prince of Bel-Air," as the most excessive of the water guzzlers was called, pumped 11.8 million gallons of water during a single year of drought emergency across the state. That's enough water for 90 families.

So who is the so-called Wet Prince? Los Angeles city officials have declined to identify by name any of the homeowners in the study, telling the study's authors — investigative reporters Lance Williams and Katharine Mieszkowski — that it isn't in the public interest. This, despite the influence the report has exerted on local and state water policy in California — including in Los Angeles, where the City Council voted unanimously to take action against the city’s biggest water users after the findings of the report went public in October 2015. 

The Wet Prince's identity might have remained a mystery forever had Williams not received a timely email from a reader. "We got tipped," Williams told L.A. Weekly. "This guy was getting his doctorate in earth sciences in Oklahoma. He asked us, 'Why not use satellite images to see who the big users are?'" 

Earth scientists can track mega-trends in the environment such as deforestation and global warming by analyzing satellite photographs that detect differences in light that are invisible to the human eye. They can determine, for instance, the amount of moisture in the soil and the overall health of plant life in an area like Bel-Air. The lawns of one of the estates appeared significantly greener than the fairways at nearby Bel-Air Country Club, the report states. 

For nearly a year, Williams and Michael Corey, the senior news applications developer at CIR, pored over high-resolution satellite imagery and used mathematical algorithms and a scientific technique called “tasseled cap transformation” to track the moisture levels of the soil in Bel-Air from space. They then overlaid a Bel-Air real estate parcel map and retrieved property ownership information from ATTOM Data Solutions, a real estate data service. 

And thus, in consultation with scientists, they were able to publish a follow-up story on Sept. 19, narrowing their list of prime suspects down to three:  

Former Univision CEO Jerrold Perenchio, owner of the 42-room French-style chateau from TV’s “The Beverly Hillbillies.” His compound of lawns, formal gardens, woodlands and vineyards would require at least 6.1 million gallons of water per year.

Investment banker and onetime telecommunications tycoon Gary Winnick, owner of the 28,000-square-foot “Bellagio House” near the Bel-Air Country Club. The grounds, famous for floral gardens, require at least 4.6 million gallons per year.

Movie producer Peter Guber, who is also part owner of the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Dodgers. His wooded estate on a ridge above the Hotel Bel-Air needs at least 2.8 million gallons per year.

Williams told L.A. Weekly that tracking down the identity of the Wet Prince of Bel-Air is important because the issue of excessive residential water use is important. 

"We shouldn't be pretending that this resource doesn't need allocating in a rational way," Williams said. "Also, it's not fair to ordinary people trying to conserve but who made a mistake about what day they washed the car and get socked with a $500 ticket. It's not fair to crack down on them and let some other guy pump 12 million gallons, enough for 90 families, just because he's got the dough." 

A new bill on water wasters was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in August, in response to the earlier study by CIR's Williams and Mieszkowski. The law requires local water agencies for the first time to define excessive use for residential water customers during a statewide water emergency. Water wasters who flout the new restrictions will face fines of up to $500 for every 748 gallons of overuse, the new law says.

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Williams said that he and Corey emailed their suspects for Bel-Air's seven biggest water wasters for comment on the report's findings. One of the seven replied: Robert Daly, former chairman of both Warner Bros. Studios and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Daly told Williams that since 2014 he had cut water use by 35 percent on his estate, tearing out lawns and employing other conservation measures. "He was a good guy, a stand-up guy. He called me up and talked to me about it, whereas most of these guys couldn't be bothered."

Perenchio, who the study concludes was the biggest water waster of the 2014-15 drought, did not respond to Williams. But Michael Corey has been studying more recent satellite images taken this year, and some of the big lawns on Perenchio's 13-acre Nimes Road estate appear to have browned, Williams said. 

"It was quite lush when we tried to talk to him. Maybe he’s seen the light."

For the full list of Bel-Air's wet princes and princesses, read the full CIR report here.


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