In Cal­i­for­nia, rich can ra­tio­nal­ize wa­ter use in­stead of ra­tioning it

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROB KUZ­NIA

RAN­CHO SANTA FE, CALIF. — Drought or no drought, Steve Yuhas re­sents the idea that it is some­how shame­ful to be a wa­ter hog. If you can pay for it, he ar­gues, you should get your wa­ter.

Peo­ple “should not be forced to live on prop­erty with brown lawns, golf on brown cour­ses or apol­o­gize for want­ing their gar­dens to be beau­ti­ful,” Yuhas fumed re­cently on so­cial me­dia. “We pay sig­nif­i­cant prop­erty taxes based on where we live,” he added in an in­ter­view. “And, no, we’re not all equal when it comes to wa­ter.”

Yuhas lives in the ul­tra-wealthy en­clave of Ran­cho Santa Fe, a bu­colic South­ern Cal­i­for­nia ham­let of ranches, gated com­mu­ni­ties and coun­try clubs that guz­zles five times more wa­ter per capita than the statewide av­er­age. In April, af­ter Gov. Jerry Brown (D) called for a 25 per­cent re­duc­tion in wa­ter use, con­sump­tion in Ran­cho Santa

Fe went up by 9 per­cent.

But a mo­ment of truth is at hand for Yuhas and his neigh­bors, and all of Cal­i­for­nia will be watch­ing: On July 1, for the first time in its 92-year his­tory, Ran­cho Santa Fe will be sub­ject to wa­ter ra­tioning.

“It’s no longer a ‘ You can only wa­ter on th­ese days’ ” sit­u­a­tion, said Jes­sica Parks, spokes­woman for the Santa Fe Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict, which pro­vides wa­ter ser­vice to Ran­cho Santa Fe and other parts of San Diego County. “It’s now more of a ‘ This is the amount of wa­ter you get within this billing pe­riod. And if you go over that, there will be high penal­ties.’ ”

So far, the com­mu­nity’s 3,100 res­i­dents have not felt the wrath of the wa­ter po­lice. Au­thor­i­ties have is­sued only three ci­ta­tions for vi­o­la­tions of a first round of rather mild wa­ter re­stric­tions an­nounced last fall. In a place where the me­dian in­come is $189,000, where PGA leg­end Phil Mick­el­son once re­quested a sep­a­rate wa­ter me­ter for his chip­ping greens, where fi­nancier Ralph Whit­worth last month paid the Rolling Stones $2 mil­lion to play at a lo­cal bar, the fine, at $100, was less than in­tim­i­dat­ing.

All that is about to change, how­ever. Un­der the new rules, each house­hold will be as­signed an es­sen­tial al­lot­ment for ba­sic in­door needs. Any ad­di­tional us­age — sprin­klers, foun­tains, swim­ming pools— must be slashed by nearly half for the dis­trict to meet state­man­dated tar­gets.

Res­i­dents who ex­ceed their al­lot­ment could see their al­ready sky-high wa­ter bills triple. And for ul­tra-wealthy cus­tomers un­de­terred by fi­nan­cial penal­ties, the dis­trict re­serves the right to in­stall flow re­stric­tors — quar­ter­size disks that make it dif­fi­cult to, say, shower and do a load of laun­dry at the same time.

In ex­treme cases, the dis­trict could shut off the tap al­to­gether.

The re­stric­tions are among the tough­est in the state, and res­i­dents of Ran­cho Santa Fe are feel­ing ag­grieved.

“I think we’re be­ing overly pe­nal­ized, and we’re cer­tainly be­ing overly scru­ti­nized by the world,” said Gay But­ler, an in­te­rior designer out for a trail ride on her show horse, Bear. She said her wa­ter bill av­er­ages about $800 a month.

“It angers me be­cause peo­ple aren’t look­ing at the over­all pic­ture,” But­ler said. “What are we sup­posed to do, just have dirt around our house on four acres?”

Ran­cho Santa Fe res­i­dents are hardly the only Cal­i­for­ni­ans fac­ing a wa­ter crack­down. On Fri­day, the state said it would im­pose sharp cut­backs on se­nior wa­ter rights dat­ing back to the Gold Rush for the first time in four decades, a move that pri­mar­ily hits farm­ers. And start­ing this month, all of Cal­i­for­nia’s 400-plus wa­ter dis­tricts are un­der or­ders to re­duce flow by at least 8 per­cent from 2013 lev­els.

Top­wa­ter users such as Ran­cho Santa Fe are re­quired to cut con- sump­tion by 36 per­cent. Other ar­eas in the 36-per­cent crosshairs in­clude much of the Cen­tral Val­ley, a farm­ing re­gion that runs up the mid­dle of the state, and Or­ange County, a ritzy Repub­li­can strong­hold be­tween San Diego and Los An­ge­les.

“I call it the war on sub­ur­bia,” said Brett Bar­bre, who lives in the Or­ange County com­mu­nity of Yorba City, an­other ex­cep­tion­ally wealthy Zip code.

Bar­bre sits on the 37-mem­ber board of di­rec­tors of the Metropoli­tan Wa­ter Dis­trict of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, a huge wa­ter whole­saler serv­ing 17 mil­lion cus­tomers. He is fond of re­fer­ring to his wa­ter­ing hose with Charl­ton He­ston’s fa­mous quote about guns: “They’ll have to pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

“Cal­i­for­nia used to be the land of op­por­tu­nity and free­dom,” Bar­bre said. “It’s slowly be­com­ing the land of one group telling every­body else how they think every­body should live their lives.”

Jur­gen Gram­ckow, a sod farmer north of Los An­ge­les in Ven­tura County, agrees. He likens the free­dom to buy wa­ter to the free­dom to buy gaso­line.

“Some peo­ple have a Prius; oth­ers have a Sub­ur­ban,” Gram­ckow said. “Once the wa­ter goes through the me­ter, it’s yours.”

Yuhas, who hosts a con­ser­va­tive talk-ra­dio show, ab­hors the cul­ture of “drought-sham­ing” that has de­vel­oped here since the drought be­gan four years ago, es­pe­cially the aerial shots of lav­ish lawns tar­geted for de­ri­sion on the lo­cal TV news.

“I’m a con­ser­va­tive, so this is strange, but I de­fend Bar­bra Streisand’s right to have a green lawn,” said Yuhas, who splits his time be­tween Ran­cho Santa Fe and Los An­ge­les. “When we bought, we didn’t plan on get­ting a place that looks like we’re living in an African sa­vanna.”

Oth­ers are em­bar­rassed by such de­fi­ance. Parks of the Sante Fe Ir­ri­ga­tion Dis­trict said she was mor­ti­fied when the re­port came out ear­lier this month show­ing that Ran­cho Santa Fe had in­creased its wa­ter use — the only com­mu­nity in the re­gion to do so.

“I kind of take it per­son­ally,” she said last week as she toured the com­mu­nity in an SUV bear­ing the wa­ter dis­trict’s logo.

Parks said she doesn’t know ex­actly what hap­pened, but she has heard ru­mors that some peo­ple jacked up their wa­ter use in a mis­guided at­tempt to in­crease their base­line be­fore ra­tioning kicks in. With sprin­kler re­stric­tions al­ready in place, she said the dy­namic be­tween lo­cal gar­den­ers and her small team of en­forcers is get­ting in­ter­est­ing.

“Ev­ery­one seems now to know what our cars look like,” she said. In Fair­banks Ranch, a gated com­mu­nity, “when­ever one of our trucks go in, the gar­den­ers all seem to call each other — textmes­sage each other — to let them know that we’ve ar­rived. So then all of a sud­den we see wa­ter kind of drain­ing off the prop­erty but no sprin­klers on.”

Be­cause the re­stric­tions that took ef­fect in Septem­ber didn’t reg­is­ter, the dis­trict fur­ther tight­ened the screws this month. Sprin­kler days were re­duced from three a week to two, while car-wash­ing and gar­den foun­tains were banned al­to­gether.

Holly Man­ion, a real es­tate agent who has lived on the Ranch, as it’s of­ten called, for most of her 62 years, sup­ports the re­stric­tions. Although Man­ion cher­ishes the land­scape of man­i­cured lawns and bur­bling foun­tains that has long de­fined the Ranch, she thinks the drought re­quires a new way of life that em­pha­sizes wa­ter con­ser­va­tion.

“Just take a drive around the area. You’ll see lakes low, rivers dry and hill­sides parched,” Man­ion said, adding that she is ap­palled by peo­ple who tol­er­ate leak­ing sprin­klers and the re­sult­ing cas­cades of wasted wa­ter.

“There are peo­ple, they aren’t be­ing re­spon­si­ble,” she said. “They’re just think­ing of their own lives.”

Ann Boon, pres­i­dent of the Ran­cho Santa Fe As­so­ci­a­tion, in­sists that most res­i­dents are tak­ing the drought se­ri­ously. She said she was shocked by the re­ported 9 per­cent in­crease, ar­gu­ing that it “must be some anom­aly.”

“Every­body has been try­ing to cut back,” she said.

For ex­am­ple, many Ran­cho Santa Fe res­i­dents have en­thu­si­as­ti­cally em­braced drought-tol­er­ant land­scap­ing. Man­ion took ad­van­tage of a re­bate to rip out much of the turf on her three-acre prop­erty and re­place it with suc­cu­lents and de­com­posed-gran­ite pathways. She left only a small patch of grass for her two dogs to play on.

“It makes me happy when I look at it, be­cause it’s thriv­ing,” she said.

But­ler said she, too, is re­plac­ing grass with drought-friendly na­tive land­scap­ing on her four acres, at a cost of nearly $80,000. (She’ll get a re­bate for about $12,000.) But she came to the de­ci­sion grudg­ingly, she said. And she de­fends the amount of wa­ter she and her neigh­bors need for their vast es­tates.

“You could put 20 houses onmy prop­erty, and they’d have fam­i­lies of at least four. Inmy house, there is only two of us,” But­ler said. So “they’d be us­ing a hell of a lot­more wa­ter than we’re us­ing.”

Ran­cho Santa Fe res­i­dent Randy Woods was feel­ing bur­dened by his lush land­scape and opted to down­size. The 60-some­thing chief ex­ec­u­tive of a biotech com­pany moved a year ago from a two-acre es­tate — re­plete with two wa­ter­falls, two Jacuzzis, a swim­ming pool and an or­chard — to a condo in the tiny core of town known as “the Vil­lage.”

Woods said some of his friends would like to do the same, largely to cut down on their bloated wa­ter bills. But they have en­coun­tered an un­fore­seen ob­sta­cle, he said: The drought has damp­ened de­mand for large es­tates in San Diego County.

Woods said his girl­friend is among those strug­gling to sell. Her home boasts a yard de­signed by Kate Ses­sions, a well-known land­scape ar­chi­tect and botanist who died in 1940. But now, the rare palm tree spec­i­mens, the se­cret gar­den and the tur­ret-shaped hedges are a li­a­bil­ity rather than a sell­ing point.

An­other friend, Woods said, has seen the value of his nine-acre plot plum­met from $30 mil­lion to $22 mil­lion.

As for Woods, his monthly wa­ter bill has shriv­eled from $500 to around $50.

“My friends,” he said, “are all jeal­ous.”

PHO­TOS BY SANDY HUF­FAKER FOR THE WASH­ING­TON POST

ABOVE: Gay But­ler rides her horse on her four acres in Ran­cho Santa Fe, Calif. She pays about $800 a month for wa­ter. “I think we’re be­ing overly pe­nal­ized, and we’re cer­tainly be­ing overly scru­ti­nized by the world,” she said. LEFT: Hol­lyMan­ion stands among the drought-re­sis­tant plants she planted in her yard. “There are peo­ple, they aren’t be­ing re­spon­si­ble,” she said.

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