Conservation efforts slow to slake consumers’ thirst
2:00 a.m. February 15, 2009
The majority of residential water use occurs outdoors. Ways to reduce landscaping irrigation include:
Test and tune sprinkler systems to eliminate overspray, leaks, broken heads and other waste.
Install a “smart” irrigation controller that waters based on weather and other factors.
Replace standard sprinklers with ones that have low-volume, high-efficiency, rotating heads.
Irrigate before 8 a.m. to reduce evaporation and interference from the wind.
Apply mulch to exposed earth in planter beds to lessen evaporation.
Replace water-intensive plants with drought-resistant vegetation.
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 people.”
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.”