City’s Elite Gain Notice as Its Biggest Water Users : Drought: List of Top 100 includes publisher Helen Copley, developer Christopher Sickels and retired banker Gordon Luce. Many cite special circumstances but are trying to conserve.


San Diego’s fifth full year of drought brings more than just the prospect of brown lawns and short showers. It also spawns a subtle notoriety for the city’s largest residential water users.

Unknown and uncelebrated (at least for their water use), these consumers now are in the water spotlight because of usage that is as much as 29 times that of the average homeowner.

While the average household uses 349 gallons of water per day, the Top 100 users--a virtual “Who’s Who” of San Diego--consume 3,000 to 10,000 gallons daily, records show.

Atop the list, drawn up by the Water Utilities Department on Feb. 11 as part of a planned city water-conservation program, is Union-Tribune publisher Helen Copley, who used an average of 10,203 gallons of water each day at her 9 1/2-acre La Jolla home. “I don’t doubt for one minute that I might be the biggest user,” Copley said in an interview Thursday. ". . . How many people have 9 1/2 acres?”

Also on the list are such well-known public figures as developer Christopher Sickels, who used an average of 7,061 gallons each day during the same period; developer Roque de la Fuente II, who averaged 5,198 gallons daily, and retired Great American Bank Chairman Gordon Luce, who used 3,455 gallons each day.


Many said they were redoubling their water-conservation efforts.

“We are doing a very good job of water conservation here,” Copley said, noting that her June, 1990, water bill was 39% lower than her June, 1989, bill. Water conservation efforts of Copley’s 10 full-time gardeners include watering pool-side plants individually instead of spraying an entire area, punching deep holes in soil to allow water to soak in, and pouring unused drinking water on plants. She said she is considering leaving one portion of her property unwatered.

“When you’ve spent this much time and money on landscaping, you can’t just walk away from it,” added Margaret Casey, who owns a 3-acre La Jolla home that used 6,515 gallons of water each day. “Besides . . . you could have five tract houses on a lot this size. So, in a way, we’re really using less water than could happen otherwise.”

The list was composed by city officials as part of San Diego’s Internal and External Water Audit Program, under which the city will contact its top water users and seek their cooperation in reducing water consumption, water conservation analyst Marsi Steirer said.

One-third of all residential water use is outdoors--for landscape irrigation, filling pools and washing cars. The San Diego County Water Authority recommended an end to residential sprinkler use when it voted unanimously Feb. 14 to ask its 24 member agencies to adopt rigorous water conservation measures. Beginning March 1, the member agencies must cut their water use 30% or pay sizable penalties, effective April 1.

In general, city residents with the most property stand to use the most water, city officials say. All of those interviewed Thursday said that they have undertaken stringent efforts to cut back as part of the city’s program of voluntary water conservation.

“I think it’s safe to say there’s ultimately a limit on how much water one is going to use inside the house, regardless of size and regardless of family size,” said Henry Pepper, assistant director of the city’s Water Utilities Deparment. “And the assumption we make in looking at the largest accounts is that it’s outdoor use, it’s irrigation.”

For example, Casey said that she and her husband have reduced watering of the extensive gardens on their 3-acre lot, delayed draining their pool and now clean their tennis court with an “ugly, noisy” leaf blower instead of a water broom.

The couple also installed water-saving devices in toilets and even take “Navy showers” in which they soap up with the water turned off and then quickly rinse off, she said.

Similarly, horse breeder and retired investment broker Harry Polonitza said that he and his wife have significantly reduced outside watering at their 5 1/2-acre La Jolla home, now do the dishes in the sink rather than in the dishwasher and use water-reduction devices in their bathrooms.

In a proposal announced Thursday, Mayor Maureen O’Connor asked residential, industrial, commercial and multifamily water users to cut water consumption 30% over 1989 levels by April 1. If the city achieves at least a 20% savings by that date, a 30-day extension would be granted under O’Connor’s plan, which requires approval by the City Council March 4.

If that level of conservation is not achieved, the council will consider City Manager John Lockwood’s recommendation to adopt mandatory conservation standards, according to Paul Downey, O’Connor’s spokesman.

The information on the list of top 100 users was drawn from billing data of the city’s 237,000 separate water accounts, of which 80% are for single-family homes. Those homes use 34% of the city’s water, Pepper said. Residents of multifamily homes, which comprise 12% of city accounts, consume 22% of the water. Commercial and industrial facilities, which constitute 8% of city accounts, use 44% of the city’s water supply, he said.

The Times requested the list from the city’s Water Utilities Department on Feb. 14. A city official at first denied its existence, and a city attorney later said that the city was not legally required to turn it over to the newspaper.

City officials reversed their position the next day. As a courtesy to the 100 people on the list, City Manager John Lockwood on Tuesday notified all of them by mail of a media request for the document and the city’s legal obligation to provide it. The list was released to The Times Thursday.

By mid-afternoon Thursday, about 30 people had called a Water Utilities Deptartment phone number provided in the letter, many to complain that publication of personal information would create security concerns or expose them to ridicule.

According to the list, water consumption among the city’s top 100 homes, many of them in La Jolla, ranges from a high average of 10,203 gallons daily to a low of 3,171 each day. The latter figure is nine times as much water as is used in a typical single-family home.

Pepper said consumers at the top of the list pay about $800 to $900 for water every two months. Homeowners at the bottom of the list pay $250 to $300 bimonthly, he said. The city is considering a tiered water-price structure that would penalize large consumers.

Many of those interviewed Thursday pointed to special circumstances that they believe help explain their unusually high water use, with several pointing to outdoor leaks that went undetected until extremely high water bills arrived in the mail.

A major underground leak in a sprinkler system probably catapulted the home of the late hotelier William Evans onto the list, said Evans’ son, Bill, general manager of the Bahia Hotel. “It’s just difficult to believe we would be” among the city’s top 100 water users, said Evans. According to city records, the home consumed 4,615 gallons of water daily.

The home has been partly xeris-caped, and the pool was filled only once last year, Evans said.

Abraham Wasserman explained that a now-corrected sprinkler leak also contributed to his 3,919-gallon daily usage. Washing his adult son’s laundry at his La Jolla home also adds to water usage, he said.

In his effort to cut back, Wasserman said he now takes “short showers” instead of baths and has reduced watering his half-acre lot, which features a garden and fruit trees, from four times a week to twice weekly.

“I hope the water bill’s finally going to be lower this month,” Wasserman said, adding that his typical bimonthly bill averages $400.

Retired banker and longtime Republican Party activist Luce noted that his 3,455-gallon daily average is used both to irrigate his 1-acre Point Loma lot and the “loads of trees” on an adjacent half-acre vacant lot that he owns.

“It’s really two properties on one water meter,” Luce said, adding that voluntary reductions in his outside watering already have cost him some ivy.

“I’m sure the effect will be more noticeable if (water usage) restrictions increase,” Luce added. “That would be a shame, but I think we all have to pitch in and support these conservation goals.”