RANCHO SANTA FE — Where some might only see sprinklers shooting water while oscillating back and forth, more groups and citizens notice something else entirely: significant potential for water conservation.
Reducing outdoor use is the largest piece of low-hanging fruit when it comes to achieving water savings, according to a new study from the nonprofit Equinox Center. Nowhere is that more true than the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which includes Solana Beach and Rancho Santa Fe.
The district uses more water per person than anywhere else in San Diego County, according to a previous report from Equinox Center, noting that the Santa Fe district’s properties are bigger than other areas, and thus demand more water.
“We examined all of San Diego with our new study, and our findings are very applicable to Rancho Santa Fe,” said Sarah Benson, communications director with the Equinox Center. “Rancho Santa Fe and the rest of San Diego could reduce our water consumption 20 to 30 percent over the next few decades with technologies already in existence.”
The study aims to highlight low-water use appliances and other conservation measures. The biggest savings, however, are outside the house.
“On average, single family homes in San Diego that use water for landscaping use about 50 gallons a day more than needed,” Benson said.
Outdoor conservation entails limiting over-watering, employing efficient irrigation techniques, minimizing irrigable areas and sowing low-water use plants.
Benson said that eliminating over-irrigation alone would slash a home’s water demand by 26 percent. Where possible, an all-of-the-above approach would save an estimated 38,000 gallons per year, Benson said.
The potential may even be greater in an area like Rancho Santa Fe, known for homes with extensive landscaping and sprawling lots.
Benson said that the call for water conservation couldn’t be more important. Currently, San Diego imports 70 percent of its water. Not only is its more expensive, but the imported water supply is also more vulnerable to future legal, environmental and regulatory problems, as well as climate change, states Equinox Center’s study.
To help usher in conservation, the Equinox Center study calls for public utilities to expand incentive and rebate programs.
According to the study, cutting consumption would mean delaying the need for new infrastructure, reducing runoff and pollutants that threaten water quality and beaches, decreasing water utilities’ operating costs, and perhaps most importantly, saving customers money on their water bills.
Turning water conservation into a business
Standing on one of his client’s front yards in Rancho Santa Fe, Patrick Crais gently tapped the ground with his foot to indicate a water-saving change. Crais, along with David Reed Landscape Architecture, oversaw the maintenance and the installation of buffalo grass, which uses 20 percent less water than the variety that was previously in place.
“There’s an increasing appetite for this kind of service,” Crais said of his company that was founded in 2009 and spends much of its time in Rancho Santa Fe.
He owns San Diego-based Blue Watchdog Conservation Inc., a company that looks for the water conservation opportunities at homes, businesses and government buildings. As another example of conservation in the yard, Crais pointed to colorful, low-water use plants springing up from a patch of dirt.
“This concept of putting in low-water use plants doesn’t mean you’re going to go to a desert of rocks,” said Crais, adding that many residential homes in Rancho Santa Fe are eager to save water, but often without compromising lush landscaping.
“Others choose the more desert landscaping,” he said.
Crais said some of the estates his company serves in Rancho Santa Fe once had a $75,000 yearly water bill, most of it from outdoor use.
“Here in Rancho Santa Fe the larger estates have more of a responsibility for water use,” Crais said. “More and more people care about conservation, and they’re also being prompted by their water bill. Water prices aren’t going down.”
Before considering replacing plants and grass, Crais said simple conservation fixes come first, including removing plant materials covering sprinklers and installing a pressure regulator on sprinklers to prevent over-irrigation. Beyond that, his company also properly spaces sprinkler systems, sets up irrigational scheduling, installs dedicated water meters just for irrigation and works with customers to establish a budget for water use.
Some customers can be reluctant to embrace outdoor water conservation, Crais said. Certain conservation methods require an up-front investment, and some people lack the awareness or are unwillingly to dedicate time to conservation.
To counteract, Crais said he emphasizes long-term savings on water bills. If they aren’t swayed by savings, other customers are more receptive to “hearing about the legacy they’ll leave for the next homeowner.”
Water use trending down
Jessica Parks, spokeswoman for the Santa Fe Irrigation District, said the district is working to bring water use down, and reducing outdoor use “is a key part of that.”
She said people are changing their ways of life: “More are scaling back watering outdoors.”
In 2006 the Santa Fe Irrigation District used more than 571 gallons of water per person per day, the highest in San Diego County, with the average district at 180.
In 2010 the Santa Fe district’s water use declined to 505. From July 2011 to June 30 2011, the number dipped down further to 489, according to Parks.
Progress has been made, but more work is needed, Parks said.
She said the district would like to expand its use of recycled water on outdoor property. Currently, golf courses, some homes, businesses and schools in the western part of the district receive recycled water for their outsides.
To incentivize conservation, Parks said those in single-family homes in Rancho Santa Fe can apply for water conversation rebates through the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California if they purchase weather-based irrigation controllers or at least 25 rotating nozzles. More rebates are available for businesses, according to Parks.
Also, residents in the Santa Fe district can also take advantage of a free landscape evaluation that covers the basics of water conservation.
“There’s a lot happening right now where I think conservation will become more a part of our consciousness,” Parks said.