By IAN LOVETT NOV. 29, 2014
RANCHO SANTA FE, Calif. — In these hills overlooking San Diego, the only indication of the continuing drought — now among the worst in California’s recorded history — is the perpetually cloudless sky.
Private lemon groves hark back to the area’s agricultural past, before it became home to some of Southern California’s wealthiest residents; horses roam through grassy pastures; palatial homes are surrounded by rolling grass lawns and, in at least one case, a three-hole putting green owned by the golfer Phil Mickelson. And all that greenery sucks down hundreds of gallons of water each day.
Three years into the drought, residents of this area are using more water than those in any other part of California. According to data released this month by state water officials, residents of the Santa Fe Irrigation District used an average of 584 gallons a day in September, nearly five times the average for coastal Southern California. The district encompasses Rancho Santa Fe, the wealthy gated community of Fairbanks Ranch and the more densely populated city of Solana Beach.
The lawns and horse pastures here offer a stark reminder that, although drought has blanketed the entire state, the burdens of the dry reservoirs have hardly been spread evenly. As people in low-income corners of the San Joaquin Valley cope with dry taps and toilets they cannot flush, life has continued almost exactly as before in much of California, where the water supply still seems endless.
Water managers are trying to fight that complacency. “This isn’t Connecticut — you can’t just roll out lawn endlessly,” said Michael J. Bardin, the general manager of the Santa Fe Irrigation District. “The whole mind-set about using water needs to be addressed. That’s a challenge, as a community that uses a lot of water. If you have a $10 million home, you want to invest in your landscape.”
In part, the high per-capita water consumption here is easy to explain: Properties are larger than almost anywhere else, many of them at least three acres, so their grounds demand more water.
Mr. Bardin is pushing his customers to cut back. Outdoor watering has been restricted to three days a week, and rebates are available for those willing to rip out their grass. The Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club recently began removing nearly 20 acres of turf from its course (with the promise of $1.6 million from the water authorities in return), and the district is on a pace to meet state-mandated water use reductions by 2020.
At the post office, which doubles as the village gathering place in an area where mail is still not delivered door to door, residents insisted they were doing their part to conserve.
“It’s on top of everyone’s minds,” Candace Humber, the chairwoman of the design committee for a Rancho Santa Fe homeowners association, said of the drought. “I have friends who are replacing their lawns with more drought-tolerant plants.”
But the numbers tell another story: Water use here was down only 1.5 percent from September 2013, compared with 10.3 percent statewide.
Laura de Seroux, who has lived in Rancho Santa Fe for 14 years, said she was “shocked into action” by a $1,700 water bill, but acknowledged that many of her neighbors were undeterred by the cost of water.
“It’s an affluent community,” said Ms. de Seroux, who is 62. “People have gardeners, and they just don’t pay attention. They don’t clean their own houses. That’s the way it is here.”
Ms. Humber asked a reporter not to call this area “affluent,” even though the median household income is above $170,000 a year. “It makes it sound like we don’t care,” she said.
State water officials warned against comparing per capita water use between districts; they said they expected use to be highest in wealthy communities with large properties.
Still, some activists said the data reinforced an old saying: In the American West, water flows uphill to money. Five of the top six per-capita water users were affluent communities like this one. (In the latest survey, 12 percent of water districts in the state did not report their per-capita water use.)
A University of California, Los Angeles, study last year found that not only did wealthier areas of Los Angeles County use more water, but they also cut back less during droughts, because residents were less sensitive to fines and rising water bills. By contrast, in parts of East Los Angeles, residents used less than 50 gallons per day in September.
“I don’t think affluent communities are stepping up,” said Miguel Luna, a community organizer in Los Angeles who focuses on water issues. “You drive around Beverly Hills and even the median strips are all lush and green. It’s like, where’s your sense of community? Where’s you sense of conservation?”
Not all wealthy communities have been spared the drought’s ravages: Polo fields have been fallowed in Montecito since water officials there imposed severe restrictions this year, and other well-heeled Southern California communities have pared back their water use by more than 10 percent.
Some in Rancho Santa Fe are now openly pushing for wholesale changes to the way of life around here, arguing that the dry climate cannot support so much green.
Martin J. Wygod, a prominent racehorse breeder, said the landscape had hardly changed since he and his wife moved here two decades ago. With more than 100 acres of property, they used more water than the local golf course last year.
But over the last two years, the Wygods have replaced much of their landscaping with succulents, which has cut their consumption in half from what it was in 2004.
“We’ve been cutting back our usage as we’ve realized the severity of the problem,” Mr. Wygod said, adding that if the drought continues, they might even uproot their hundreds of lemon trees, long a hallmark of life here. “They’ve always been there. But you lose money with lemon groves. And there’s not a shortage of lemons in this country.”
John Ingalls, who served on the irrigation district board for 12 years, said that with ever-growing concern about the availability of water, this community would indeed have to give up its citrus groves.
“People in Rancho Santa Fe used to drive down the road looking in the rearview mirror, thinking there would always be rain,” Mr. Ingalls said. “They’re realizing that those days are over. They need to start taking down the citrus trees row by row. The question is really what you’re going to plant to replace the citrus.”
He suggested planting native oak trees, which require no watering or maintenance. So far, though, oaks have been a tough sell.
“It would cost a bloody fortune to take out a whole citrus grove,” said Bibba Winn, 80, who has lived here for 18 years. “And oak trees? I can’t even conceive of planting that many. I’m not quite ready for the Black Forest.”
Just next door, Robert Schaefer and his wife have landscaped much of their property with succulents and other drought-tolerant plants. But they had no intention of removing their 100 lemon trees, which use less water than grass and, residents said, have helped protect homes from wildfires.
“We like that rural look around here,” Mr. Schaefer, 79, said. “Rancho Santa Fe was first started as an agricultural community. There are lots of big homes with lemon groves. We enjoy it.”
Huge reservoirs, many built since the last serious drought a quarter-century ago, have helped see much of Southern California through these three years of drought without requiring homeowners here to rip out greenery around their houses. Restrictions have largely focused on reducing water waste.
But that could change if the drought stretches into next year. Even in Southern California, those reserves of water are now running low.
“Now we have cut the fat, and we are having to cut bone,” said Ken E. Weinberg, the water resources director for the San Diego County Water Authority, which provides water to the Santa Fe Irrigation District. “Now there is more emphasis on changing to water-efficient landscapes. You have all this grass. Do you really need that front lawn? That’s where the focus is turning in Southern California.”