RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Here in Los Angeles, it's official. It's the driest year in recorded history. Since July of 2006, the city has gotten barely three inches of rain. Twelve inches a year is normal, but even as parts of L.A. sizzle in the summer's first big heat wave, water is flowing everywhere and there's only a modest effort underway to conserve it.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: On a tree-lined lawn-rich street in a South Los Angeles neighborhood, Art Ajamian is giving his private patch of green and several rose bushes a good dousing with the garden hose.
Mr. ART AJAMIAN (Resident, Los Angeles): Weather is going to be hot.
KAHN: You do this every morning?
Mr. AJAMIAN: No, no, no. I do it twice a week, twice a week.
KAHN: Ajamian says he's cut back trying to meet city officials calls to conserve water by 10 percent. But he says he doesn't want to lose his lush lawn to the heat wave.
Mr. AJAMIAN: Turning brown, you know, all the grasses, you know. I have to take care of that. It's going to cost me later on a lot of money for - if I don't water.
KAHN: Ajamian's neighbor must feel the same way. His morning watering has left the sidewalk soaked. What a difference from previous L.A. droughts, when hosing down a driveway or excessive water use could have rendered a fine. These days L.A.'s Department of Water and Power sends out a warning letter, with little threat of punishment.
DWP's David Nahai says this time around there's no reason to call for tougher measures.
Mr. DAVID NAHAI (President, Water and Power Board, Los Angeles): Just as we had - we are having the driest year on record this year, last year we had the wettest year on record.
KAHN: Nahai said area reservoirs are stocked. Storage capacity is good and there is still water in the underground aquifers. And Angelinos are using less water today than they did 20 years ago, even after adding one million new residents.
But Jeff Kightlinger of Southern California's Metropolitan Water District says the situation will get worst if dry conditions last into next year and beyond.
Mr. JEFF KIGHTLINGER (General Manager, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California): We are worried that these conditions could continue and make us want to conserve as much as possible and keep our reserve levels as high as we can.
KAHN: This month the Metropolitan Water District boosted its conservation PR budget by $5 million. That's bought the MWD brief announcements during radio morning drive traffic reports.
(Soundbite of announcements)
Unidentified Woman: It's a record dry year, so we all need to save water now to be prepared for later. Come on, California, let's save water. Go to bewaterwise.com to learn how.
KAHN: But environmentalists say L.A. should be doing more, especially since the city's biggest water provider, the Sierra snowpack, is drastically below normal. And another major source, the Colorado River, is in the eighth year of the serious drought.
Mr. KIGHTLINGER: We've done a lot. We need to be getting much more serious.
KAHN: Andy Lipkis heads a group called Tree People, which pushes conservation by building huge water storage tanks under city parks and at schools, like this one, where a summer drama club is rehearsing.
(Soundbite of children singing)
KAHN: Lipkis's group ripped up the concrete schoolyard and installed an underground cistern that holds nearly a million gallons of water. Now instead of rainfalls spilling off the roofs and onto the street, the school captures it and uses the water for dozens of redwoods, willow trees and two baseball fields.
Mr. ANDY LIPKIS (Tree People): We're blessed with rainfall when we get it. It's a huge amount, and we throw it away and we pollute it, and that's crime.
KAHN: Lipkis says for every half inch of rain, $3.8 billion gallons of water just runs off into the storm drains. He says if the city worked harder to capture that resource, L.A. could cut its water imports by 50 percent each year.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.