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Drought-shaming your neighbor: There's an app for that

A home with a dead lawn stands in front of hills that are browned with dried grass on July 18, 2014, in Fremont, California.
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A home with a dead lawn stands in front of hills that are browned with dried grass on July 18, 2014, in Fremont, California.

News flash: It rained in Southern California this weekend.

However—and stop me if you've heard this one before—it wasn't nearly enough to cure the drought.

According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, 100 percent of California is in severe drought, and more than half of the state, 58 percent, is in the driest category.

As a result, the state has instituted restrictions and fines for people who use too much water. You can't water your lawn every day in Los Angeles, for example. Sprinklers can't last so long the water runs down to the street. And you can't wash your car with a hose that doesn't have a shut-off nozzle. Fines for violating these rules can run as high as $500.

The Southern California Water Committee created a character called " Lawn Dude" that is popping up on billboards announcing, "I only drink two times a week."

Some water agencies are even paying people to pull out their lawns and replace them with drought tolerant plants.

But what if none of this persuades people to cut back on their water usage?

When all else fails, you can always "drought shame" your neighbors.

Read MoreCalifornia drought: "May have to migrate people"

"If you don't know right from wrong, and someone's not stepping up to tell you, how are you ever going to know?" asked Mike Budd, an actor and musician who lives on Los Angeles' west side, not far from where 20 million gallons of water were lost in a massive pipe rupture near UCLA. Budd has started drought shaming neighbors using a new app called VizSafe.

"It empowers ordinary citizens to participate in the well-being of their community by using their smartphones," said VizSafe CEO and Founder Peter Mottur.

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The app launched in April just before the Boston Marathon, and Mottur's aim is to harness all the social media reporting that's already going on into one place dedicated to community safety. He received $500,000 in startup funding, and while he won't disclose user figures, he said they've grown 150 percent in the last month. He's currently raising another round of funding and hopes to make money with inserted ads once the app reaches a certain scale.

"The goal is to turn this content into actionable content," Mottur said. At public events where security could be an issue, Mottur said images posted on VizSafe are a "force multiplier," filling in holes from public security cameras.

However, Mottur has been surprised at how popular drought shaming has become on VizSafe. "People are very passionate about their neighborhoods," he said. VizSafe could be a tool for water agency enforcers to use, as each "violation" is geotagged on a map.

If it sounds Orwellian, Mottur points out that people are already shaming each other for all kinds of behavior on Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. "People are already capturing compelling content everywhere."

Read MoreBrutal drought brings even higher food prices

When asked if people should be "ratting each other out" for using sprinkler's too much, Mottur replied, "I think it's about holding people accountable...if I have to play by the rules, you should, too."

Source: VizSAFE | Facebook

User Mike Budd first discovered VizSafe when a friend told him it provided real-time traffic updates. Then he started seeing people post photos and videos of homes and businesses overusing water, and he got hooked. "You're using water at someone else's expense," he said. "You know, our farmers are struggling to make crops right now."

He posted a video of water runoff flooding the street near a country club. "I took out my phone and started making a video just from where the water started to where it went out, which was maybe three streets down." The country club has denied it's the culprit.

Budd admits some may face a "moral dilemma" in reporting their neighbors for something which may not rise to the level of a crime.

"I wouldn't call it 'ratting.' I mean, I don't like that term," he said. "I've had some people who've come back at me and said, 'Oh, you're an idiot,' or, 'Oh, you know, I worked hard for my green grass and my lawn and everything.' "

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He said he was even drought-shamed by a friend for washing his car. "I think if you can take the heat, then just learn from it, grow from it," he said, standing on a lush sidewalk near his apartment building.

"Droughts can last decades, and we don't need another Dust Bowl going on again, so I'll rat some people if it means that others don't have to go through famine."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells.

  • Based in Los Angeles, Jane Wells is a CNBC business news reporter and also writes the Funny Business blog for CNBC.com.

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