Conservation efforts slow to slake consumers’ thirst

Conservation efforts slow to slake consumers’ thirst

California is facing its worst drought in decades, but you wouldn’t know it
by looking at water use in the Santa Fe Irrigation District.

Residents in and around Rancho Santa Fe consume more than three times
as much water as the typical San Diego County resident, according to the
California Urban Water Conservation Council.

The Sacramento-based organization reports figures submitted by roughly
170 member districts that serve mostly urban areas statewide. Its comparisons
run from 1999 through 2006.

In each of those years, the Santa Fe district ranked second or third in
per capita water use, with an estimated 570 gallons per person per day.
The Palm Springs area, southwest Riverside County and the rural Los Angeles
County enclave of Acton have taken the top spot in recent years.

“I’m surprised we are not first,” said Bud Irvin, a longtime Santa Fe board member.
“The water situation is rather severe, and we understand that. We are trying
to convey that to everybody we talk to.”

The district includes some of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the nation,
with parcels that cover 3 acres and brim with manicured lawns or thick stands
of non-native trees.

Experts said residents in Rancho Santa Fe and nationwide must take a hard
look at their habits, especially outdoor watering.

“Many people, either at home or in their business or on the farm, are wasting
more water than they are putting to productive use,” said Amy Vickers, a
water consultant in Amherst, Mass. “We hear so much about water scarcity
and water conservation programs . . . but the practice is still lacking for most

Last year, water managers in San Diego County asked people to voluntarily
reduce their water use by 10 percent. The actual savings for homes and
nonagricultural businesses was 5 percent.

Water districts are weeks to months away from imposing higher fees, penalties,
rationing and other measures to drive down water consumption more dramatically.

Their leaders said the region must begin a fundamental shift in how it uses
the increasingly limited resource – particularly for irrigation.

“(Large) Mediterranean landscapes isn’t what’s going to work in the future,”
said Mitch Dion, general manager of the Rincon del Diablo Municipal Water
District in Escondido.

The agency’s per-capita water usage is among the highest in the county,
which Dion linked to several properties with extensive landscaping or hobby
farms. He said some residents have spent huge sums on their yards and
aren’t interested or able to replant them with drought-tolerant vegetation.

Per-capita consumption varies among water districts based on factors such
as weather patterns, pace of housing development, lot sizes and industrial
activity. Water officials typically differentiate between mostly urban districts
and heavily agricultural ones because farmers require much more water than
the typical homeowner.

Countywide per-capita water use is down modestly from the late 1980s,
when nonfarm consumption hit nearly 200 gallons per person per day. It
has been about 180 gallons for the past decade, according to the
San Diego County Water Authority.

Local areas with the lowest per-capita figures are the Lakeside Water District
(110 gallons per day in 2006) and the Sweetwater Authority (120 gallons).

The region’s largest water agency, San Diego city, came in at 157 gallons,
slightly less than the statewide average.

Mark Rogers, general manager of the Sweetwater Authority, attributed his
district’s frugal water use to small lots and a conservation ethic that took
hold during the last major water shortage in the early 1990s.

“After that drought, for whatever reason, the people in this area decided they
were not going to use a whole lot more water,” he said.

Residents can reduce water use without having to transform their lifestyles,
analysts said. Vickers, the consultant, said the most efficient toilets, clothes
washers and other conservation devices can help a person use just 50 gallons
per day for indoor water needs.

She and other experts said most water waste occurs outdoors from sources
such as broken irrigation pipes, poorly programmed watering timers, inefficient
sprinklers and thirsty exotic plants.

Dion said one tip is to place water-intensive plants close to the house and
select drought-tolerant varieties for less-visible spots. He is trying to educate
landscapers – in English and Spanish – because they set the irrigation programs
for many commercial and large residential parcels.

The Santa Fe Irrigation District’s leaders said they’re also making a stronger
push for conservation.

Irvin, the agency’s director, said consumption should drop this year because
of rising water rates and expanded efforts to promote thrift. The district is
launching a “water ambassador” program to encourage residents to spread the
word about conservation through meetings and community events.

It also has been offering rebates for water-saving devices and efficiency
audits – but with limited success. “We haven’t seen the interest that we
really would like to see,” said Michael Bardin, the district’s general manager.
“We need to ramp it up.”

Rancho Santa Fe resident John Grotting took the conservation message to
heart when he upgraded his landscaping last year. His hillside property, which
spans about an acre, has about 400 sprinklers.

Instead of adding plants and trimming trees, Grotting outfitted his irrigation
system with some of the most technologically advanced sprinklers and control
devices that operate only in certain weather conditions.

“Relative to others in San Diego, there is no question that we are using a lot
more of a precious resource to keep our yard watered,” he said. “My wife and
I just want to make sure we do whatever we can to reduce the amount of
water we use.”

In November and December, the first full months for which Grotting had data
to compare, he said his water consumption dropped 52 percent from his
November-December average from the previous four years.

The entire irrigation retrofit cost about $12,000 – 20 percent of it for
upgrading to the high-tech irrigation devices. Grotting expects to recoup
the cost of those devices in less than two years because of lower water bills.

“Most landscapers’ primary concern is, ‘How good does it look?’ ” said
Josh Soto of San Diego, who helped redesign Grotting’s irrigation system.
“As people start feeling the crush of higher and higher water bills, there
will be another gauge by which our value to our customers is measured – how
much money they are spending on water to have that beautiful yard.”

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