In a Time of Conservation, a Handful of Water Officials Increase Use

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In a Time of Conservation, a Handful of Water Officials Increase Use

Countywide, water officials have called for residents to save water. But some officials have run into trouble doing the same.

Jose Lopez, an Otay Water District board member, had no idea his home water consumption had increased 45 percent in the last four years.

Lopez’ residential use jumped from about 181,000 gallons in 2006 to about 263,000 gallons last year. He was shocked.

“Oh my goodness,” Lopez said when we informed him of the increase in his water use.

Lopez’s wife added plants last year to what he described as his Chula Vista home’s “large yard.” He acknowledged that cutting back on his landscaping would be a good way to save water.

“Something went into disarray here,” Lopez said. “My goal is to measure up.”

Some 69 other officials who oversee the region’s 24 water retailers — the agencies or cities that sell water to individual homes and businesses — either kept their use steady or cut it. (Their water use totals are public records because they have the power to set rates.)

But a few went in the other direction. Lopez was one of eight elected or appointed officials countywide whose home consumption increased by more than 10 percent between 2006 and 2009. Back in 2006, water conservation wasn’t a common refrain. But by 2009, with the first countywide supply cuts in two decades taking effect, the cause was advertised everywhere — from city buses to radio and television.

Water is a precious resource in arid San Diego, a fact reinforced by the water use restrictions continuing across the county for a second year. The Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, a major source that helps deliver Sierra Nevada snowmelt to Southern California, continues facing court-ordered restrictions limiting water exports.

Public officials, such as Mayor Jerry Sanders, have led the cause to conserve in words and action. Sanders cut his home consumption by more than half between 2006 and 2009.

County residents have heeded the call to conserve. The county’s water use dropped 14 percent between 2006 and 2009. But for a handful of officials, the opposite was true, often through happenstance: leaks struck, relatives moved in — or both. Some, like Lopez, simply weren’t aware their use was increasing, showing that even those in charge of our water supplies can have trouble controlling their use if they’re not paying attention.

Ted Muehleisen, who sits on the Sweetwater Authority board, also didn’t know his family’s water use had increased so much — until voiceofsandiego.org requested his water records in late 2009. Muehleisen’s household used about 72 percent more water in 2009 than in 2006.

He, too, was shocked. He’s since checked his home’s toilets and talked to his family about conserving. His adult son had moved his family to Muehleisen’s home in National City just more than two years ago.

“I told them this is outrageous, using way too much water,” Muehleisen said.

Since then, he’s given his younger son a timer to cut down on showers and his family makes sure to only do full loads of laundry and dishes. Muehleisen said he put himself in charge of the pool and soon noticed it needed to be filled too often — and that the cement ground nearby was damp.

He discovered a leak, shut off the water and plans to have it fixed. And he plans to get a cover to cut down on summer evaporation. He said his family’s water use has decreased significantly since he first learned of the trend.

Four of the eight officials whose use jumped by more than 10 percent said leaks were responsible.

Encinitas Deputy Mayor Maggie Houlihan said she’d long been trying to conserve water at home. She couldn’t remember exactly when she stopped taking a shower every day to conserve.

But when her water bill came in high a few straight billing cycles in late 2008 and early 2009, she said she was frustrated and surprised. The problem, she said, came from an undetected leak in a water line adjacent to her roughly one-acre lot.

“It drives me crazy because it was pure waste, and it’s unfortunate that it took so long to figure out,” said Houlihan, who’s also a San Dieguito Water District board member.

Former Poway City Councilwoman Betty Rexford posted the largest jump in consumption between 2006 and 2009 — about 246 percent. She said she’d been conserving at home, even using paper plates to cut down on dishwashing. But a water pipe broke while she was out of town for six weeks last summer.

While she was gone, Rexford said a friend checking on her house noticed a puddle of water in her front yard. A call to the city got the water shut off and the pipe was later dug up and replaced.

“If we would’ve been home, we would’ve caught it sooner,” Rexford said. “You can’t plan life. Accidents happen, lines break.”

The other four officials whose water used increased by more than 10 percent in that timeframe are Gary Croucher of the Otay Water District (about 50 percent); Margaret Welsh of Sweetwater (about 22 percent); Augie Scalzitti of Padre Dam Municipal Water District (about 13 percent); and Margaret E. Ferguson of Vallecitos Water District (about 12 percent).

Croucher had a niece come live with him, his wife and two children for a year around the same time he replaced his lawn in early 2009 but plans to look at reducing his landscaping more and said his water use this year has decreased. Welsh, the lowest user on Sweetwater’s board, said she waters her trees when it’s hot out through a drip of water at the base of the tree and has family visit.

Scalzitti, the lowest user on Padre Dam’s board, said a friend came to live with his family in late 2008 but he replaced his lawn with patios in the front and back of his house about a year ago. Ferguson said she had a leak in 2007 and again in 2008, and that she considers herself a frugal user. That’s true. She has one of the lowest consumption levels of any water district director in the county.

The usage figures obtained by VOSD also show the diversity of water’s uses in a region where at least 10 percent of the supply goes to agriculture. No water district official consumed more than the 78 million gallons used in four years by Bob Polito, who maintains 45 acres of citrus in Valley Center. His annual consumption dropped 25 percent in that time. Water’s increasing cost forced him to remove more than 1,000 fruit trees, he said.

“If you’re growing water-intensive crops and using water from the (County Water) Authority, it’s not something you’re going to be able to maintain,” Polito said. “Not the way it’s going now.”

Please contact Dagny Salas directly at dagny.salas@voiceofsandiego.org and Rob Davis at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org. Follow Salas on Twitter at twitter.com/dagnysalas and Davis at twitter.com/robwdavis.

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