Cali Top Water Hog

This home in Rancho Santa Fe features well-appointed gardens and fountains. It’s not known whether it’s one of the top water users, as names were not attached to data released by the Santa Fe Irrigation District. [Union-Tribune file] — Eduardo Contreras

California was scandalized when one home in the Los Angeles area was found to be using 11.8 million gallons of water a year amid a drought.

Well, how does 13.8 million gallons sound?

That’s right. The infamous water guzzler of Bel-Air who was vilified for weeks as the state’s biggest water hog has been surpassed.

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U-T Watchdog surveyed San Diego County water districts for the 12 months ending Sept. 30 and found an even bigger water user in Rancho Santa Fe. The home’s 13.8 million gallons of water was enough to supply more than 110 typical single-family homes or fill 21 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

Although prolific, the top user in Rancho Santa Fe notched a significant reduction in water use. In a similar survey required for district financial documents, the top residential customer used 31.7 million gallons in the 12 months that ended June 30, 2014. The second and third biggest residential customers used 20.2 million and 12.3 million, respectively.

In the Watchdog’s more recent survey of top water users, six other single-family residential customers in the Santa Fe Irrigation District used more than 6 million gallons. The next closest jurisdiction was the City of Poway, where one customer used 5.9 million gallons.

The news about the Bel-Air resident’s water use was based on a survey by the Center for Investigative Reporting of the state’s largest water agencies. That survey excluded smaller agencies, even those with big users, including the Santa Fe Irrigation District in San Diego County.

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The San Diego Union-Tribune followed up with a survey of 23 water retailers in this county, revealing the Rancho Santa Fe area household that used about 17 percent more water than the unidentified customer in Bel-Air.

“I thought 11.8 million was shocking for a single-family home, but (this) is astounding,” said Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council in Santa Monica.

The prevalence of ranchettes and long-established hobby farms on residential properties in Rancho Santa Fe helps explain why residents use more water, Quinn said. But nearly 14 million gallons for a single home stands out during a water crisis.

“This is drinking water, this is a precious resource that, if it were a subdivision, would be used for cooking, cleaning and bathing, but instead is likely being used to maintain outdoor landscapes,” Quinn said. “And in a time of unprecedented drought, we need to prioritize how we use this resource.”

The Santa Fe Irrigation District has been held up nationally before as an example of copious water use. Customers of the agency, which serves Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch and Solana Beach, were using an average 584 gallons per person per day — almost five times the average for coastal California — as of September, 2014, according to a state report released last year.

In April 2015, the state ordered the district to cut back 36 percent from its 2013 use. As of September 2015, it was exceeding its conservation target by almost 4 percent, and had reduced average residential use to 357 gallons per person per day, according to state data. The state average is 97 gallons per day.

Santa Fe Irrigation District spokeswoman Jessica Parks said people see the gallons-used figures and label customers wasteful, but residential properties in Rancho Santa Fe are larger than many other jurisdictions, and often include orchards and groves of citrus trees.

“When the gallons per capita numbers came out people assumed we were wasteful water users and that’s not what was going on,” Parks said. “People have large properties here that require more water, so just because we’re high users per capita doesn’t mean we’re wasteful.”

Martin Schmidt, a landscape architect with Environs Landscape Architecture, Inc. said relatively few single-family residential properties are large enough to require 14 million gallons of water per year for landscaping, but they’re out there.

Grass needs four cubic feet of water per square foot per year, which is more than almost any other plant commonly seen on residential properties, including fruit trees, Schmidt said.

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“The lawn is the benchmark,” Schmidt said. “Anything on your property that you are irrigating uses less than the four feet per year.”

Using that four-cubic-foot standard, 13.8 million gallons of water would be enough to irrigate about 10.6 acres of grass for a year, an area the size of approximately 8 football fields.

A review of county property records showed several Rancho Santa Fe lots of that size, although records do not show how much of each property is landscaped. For example, one 14-acre lot north of San Dieguito County Park has a 13,000-square-foot house with seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms.

Identifying outliers

When the Center for Investigative Reporting revealed the Bel-Air resident’s water use last month, the customer was dubbed “The Wet Prince of Bel-Air.”

The news prompted outrage in Los Angeles. Lawmakers called for a crackdown on water hogs, and the city’s utilities department threatened to identify and possibly fine or cut water service to excessive water users.

“Drought possies” drove the streets and scoured satellite imagery, hoping to identify the anonymous customer’s home. Councilman Paul Koretz, who represents Bel-Air, propped a trash can on a table next to two coffee cups, to illustrate the difference between “Wet Prince” water use and the typical customer. He called it extravagant and embarrassing.

Utilities are not required by law to release information about individual customers and they typically choose to withhold such information to protect the privacy of their customers.

But in the fourth year of a devastating drought, water agencies are facing pressure to identify top residential water users, a public shaming that was a feature of previous California droughts.

To review the top known residential water usage in San Diego County, the Union-Tribune requested the ZIP code, water used and amount billed for top single-family residential customers at the county’s major water districts.

Most agencies resisted giving up data, and many withheld ZIP codes or billed amounts, citing concerns for customers’ privacy. But as of Tuesday, 20 agencies had provided at least some of the data.

Only the City of Del Mar declined to release any information at all, saying the customer’s water use alone would make it too easy to identify the property in a small city. The Union-Tribune is still awaiting a response from Ramona and Yuima municipal water districts.

The agencies with the lowest top user were the Sweetwater Authority in Chula Vista and Cal-Am, a private provider in Imperial Beach and Coronado. After Santa Fe Irrigation and Poway, the agencies with the top users were Escondido and Olivenhain.

Water agencies that provided data said they hoped the top customers’ use would not reflect badly on the rest of their customers, who, as a whole, have made the personal sacrifices required of them. Most of the agencies met their state-mandated conservation targets in September, and many exceeded them.

A changing dream

With some 7,000 service connections, the Santa Fe Irrigation District is tiny compared to the state’s largest water agencies, such as the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves some 700,000 connections.

Rancho Santa Fe resident Laurel Lemarié said lawns were more modest when she moved to the area in the mid-1970s. As more and more people from wetter parts of the country moved in, they brought with them different tastes. Over the years, culture shifted to favor the East Coast version of an estate with a dream home on an emerald lawn.

State-mandated water restrictions have delivered a blow to that ideal, and may even be changing it, Lemarié said.

“We’ve got a cultural change — it’s called Jerry brown grass — and a lot of people are spending a lot of money to take it out and put in lovely groupings of succulent cactus,” Lemarié said. “People are responding.”

In Rancho Santa Fe, both the carrot and the stick are being used to address water-hogging residential landscapes.

Santa Fe Irrigation District’s water restrictions include limiting watering to two days a week. Fines start at $250 for the first violation, increasing to $1,000 for the fourth and each thereafter. Rates are also structured to discourage use at higher levels.

Parks said the district combines pricing signals and fines with personalized conservation outreach to help customers identify where they can save water. The district has also encouraged customers to take advantage of conservation rebate programs, such as turf removal grants.

The Union-Tribune reported in August that Rancho Santa Fe homeowners claimed the five largest turf-removal rebates under the $340-million ratepayer-funded turf-removal rebate program across Southern California. Data analysis showed the top five grants ranged from $48,000 to $70,000.

Top water users

Agency Water use in gallons Total billed
Santa Fe Irrigation District 13,800,000 NA
City of Poway 5,886,012 NA
City of Escondido 5,204,584 NA
Olivenhain Municipal Water District 5,005,616 $37,217
City of San Diego 3,818,540 $44,671
City of Oceanside 2,931,412 $17,272
Vallecitos Water District 2,707,760 NA
Valley Center Municipal Water District 2,469,896 NA
Rainbow Municipal Water District 2,074,952 $10,516
Otay Water District 1,831,104 $15,436
Vista Irrigation District 1,785,476 $10,603
Carlsbad Municipal Water District 1,780,240 $14,526
Helix Water District 1,694,968 $12,496
Fallbrook Public Utility District 1,599,000 $10,014
Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water District 1,579,000 $10,102
Lakeside Water District 1,464,584 $7,347
Padre Dam Municipal Water District 1,295,536 NA
San Dieguito Water District 1,274,592 NA
Sweetwater Authority 937,992 $10,279
Cal-Am 606,620 NA

The San Diego Union-Tribune surveyed county water districts to identify the top residential user for the 12 months ending Sept. 30. This chart shows the top customer of each district. (Figures not available for City of Del Mar and the Ramona and Yuima water districts.)

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