Where water rules
DEBORAH SULLIVAN BRENNAN & JONATHAN HORN •U-T
At the epicenter of California’s withering drought is the oasis of Rancho Santa Fe, lush with tropical plants, lemon groves and acre after acre of grass.
The upscale enclave earned the dubious distinction of having the state’s highest per-capita residential water use in September, when regulators began collecting that type of monthly calculation for water districts statewide.
The number for the Santa Fe Irrigation District was 584 gallons per day — more than four times the state average.
That distinction threw the community into the spotlight of national media and cast it as an example
Aerial view of landscaping in Rancho Santa Fe. Gov. Jerry Brown has demanded cuts in urban water usage because of the severe drought. SANDY HUFFAKER •GETTY IMAGES
WATER • Regulators set to vote on final requirements in May
of California’s extravagance with dwindling water resources.
It’s been a wake-up call for Rancho Santa Fe’s residents, and some have invested in replacing their landscapes with succulents and other vegetation that need less water.
“We shouldn’t be having these sprawling citrus groves because we can’t sustain them anymore,” said Janet Lawless Christ, a 12year Rancho Santa Fe resident who has redone the landscaping on most of her two-acre lot to make it more drought-friendly. “It’s a new day, it’s a new normal, people are wrapping their heads around this.”
As Californians grapple with the fourth consecutive year of drought, Rancho Santa Fe is among the places likely to have the biggest attitude adjustment coming.
Officials note that the high water consumption in this unincorporated community stems from its land-use planning, with twoand three-acre estates tucked amid leafy glades. Michael Bardin, general manager of the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which serves Rancho Santa Fe and parts of surrounding communities,
Bardin also said residents are taking seriously the state’s newest water-conservation mandate, which could force them to cut water use by 35 percent starting in June.
“Overall, we’ve seen an intensified interest and awareness during the last few months over the urgency of the drought and the need to conserve water,” he said.
By February, the most recent period for verified data, residents had cut water use to 345 gallons per person each day. Still, that was second-highest in California — behind only the 379 gallons reported by the Myoma Dunes Water Company in Riverside County (next to Palm Desert, Indian Wells and Indio).
State water reports also show that the Santa Fe district has fallen far short of Gov. Jerry Brown’s conservation goal of 20 percent. During the period from September through February, the district actually increased its water use by 2 percent over the same months in 2013.
This month, Brown cited the state’s lagging conservation in announcing an unprecedented mandate to reduce water consumption. He is ordering water districts to reduce consumption by an average of 25 percent, with a sliding scale of conservation targets. The biggest water users — including the Santa Fe district — are facing a conservation target of 35 percent.
Water regulators in Sacramento are set to vote on the final requirements in May, with implementation to begin the next month.
Amid this heightened pressure, the Rancho Santa Fe Association is ramping up efforts to educate the 5,000 or so residents of the covenant — the core of the community. Bill Overton, who took over as the association’s manager a little more than two months ago, said the organization is hosting meetings to spread the word on the need to conserve water. It also wants to start a publication about drought, water use and related issues.
Overton said he has heard no opposition or indifference from community members.
“We’re pointed in the right direction,” he said. “This place is many thousands of acres large,and it was originally conceptualized as a gentleman’s orchardtype residential community. So when you ask what the obstacle is, people are used to having three acres of whatever it might be, and it’s time to even rethink that.”
Lifelong Rancho Santa Fe resident Holly Manion rethought her front yard last year. On Wednesday, she stood amid the succulents in her very dry garden, beaming with pride.
“This is a treasure to me now,” she said. “This yard is thriving.”
Manion’s 5,000-square-foot garden looked strikingly different about half a year ago, whenthe yard was covered with green grass. Her project to revamp that space yielded mulch surrounding elephant ears and century plants, traversed by a path of decomposed granite. Manion said she barely needs to water the yard anymore.
She’s still deciding what to do with a patch of dry, brown grass that sits in the corner of her 3.25acre lot.
“My water bill was pretty high and so the option was to let the lawn die or replace it with something else,” Manion said. “There is also a responsibility.”
Not everyone in the area sharesthat sentiment, and the fact that some property owners don’t live in their estates for much of the year can make proactive conservation unappealing.
Making drought-friendly changes outdoors just won’t pencil out for certain Rancho Santa Fe residents, said longtime San Diego landscape architect Martin Schmidt.
“It’s financially a big burden on people,” Schmidt said. “Water is so cheap, relatively speaking, that they ask for a return on investment and it’s 30 years down the road. People look at it and go… ‘I’ll just suck it up and pay the water bill.’ ” He said the bill starts with turf removal and then grows with purchase and installation of the new landscape, which can run $4 to $6 a square foot. In Rancho Santa Fe, that range can rise to $7 to $10 per square foot if people buy bigger trees and shrubs.
With 43,560 square feet in an acre, the price tag can be as much as $435,000 for an acre of top-ofthe line, drought-resistant landscaping.
“Up until last year, (talk of the drought) would fall on deaf ears,” Schmidt said. “Only now with the passing of that executive order by Gov. Brown have people finally paid attention.”
Lawless Christ said she and her husband paid between $6,000 and $8,000 to redo their landscaping. The undertaking involved removing every blade of grass in the backyard and replacing them with paving and succulents. The couple swapped their high-wateruse trees and hedges with California oaks and drought-tolerant
Aerial view overlooking Rancho Santa Fe. Officials note that the high water consumption in this unincorporated community stems from its land-use planning, with two- and three-acre estates tucked amid leafy glades. SANDY HUFFAKER •GETTY IMAGES
Irene Valenti walks the grounds of her home in Rancho San Fe. Valenti, whose business is based at another site in Rancho Santa Fe, let her lawn die to save water. EDUARDO CONTRERAS •U-T
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