Behind the groves of orange trees and gated driveways in this wealthy San Diego County enclave lie estates boasting Gatsby-sized lawns, resort-style swimming pools, water falls and even putting greens.
It is Southern California’s denial of its dry geography writ large.
And it’s the reason that on a daily per capita basis, households in this area lapped up an average of nearly five times the water used by coastal Southern California homes in September, earning them the dubious distinction of being the state’s biggest residential water hogs.
The ideal of a single-family home encircled by a green carpet of grass is ingrained in the Southland’s identity, an inspiration for David Hockney’s paintings of mid-century Los Angeles and the template for endless suburbia.
As the drought drags on, that verdant aesthetic remains one of the greatest obstacles to cutting urban water consumption. Water managers say that 40% to 60% of household water use in the Southland occurs outdoors, where sprinklers are still soaking endless grids of grass. The region continues to fall well short of the 20% reduction in water use that Gov. Jerry Brown called for early this year.
“I think we’ve been kind of brainwashed in the sense that we all have to have that lawn. That goes with the dream,” said Catherine Barry, who has been selling upscale real estate in Rancho Santa Fe for nearly three decades.
In the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which supplies water to Rancho Santa Fe and the neighboring communities of Solana Beach and Fairbanks Ranch, residential use declined by 2% from September of last year to this year. In the South Coast region, it dropped an average of 7.5%.
The irrigation district’s per capita daily consumption exceeded 600 gallons in June and July, according to calculations by the State Water Resources Control Board. In September, it was 584 gallons, compared to an average of 119 gallons per person per day for coastal Southern California.
Some locals complain that the per capita measurement is an unfair comparison because much of the exclusive Rancho community has a minimum lot size of nearly three acres, and several properties are larger than 100 acres.
Still, many here are aware of their conspicuous consumption.
In a column in the local newspaper, Rancho Santa Fe Assn. board President Ann Boon called the water-guzzling ranking “an ignominious distinction.”
Not long ago, though, the numbers would have been even higher. Total water use in the irrigation district has fallen 20% since 2007, when the last drought triggered conservation efforts.
One estate owner got rid of his small personal golf course. The association replanted grassy median strips and some public spaces with drought tolerant landscaping. The local golf course, open only to those who live in the original part of the rancho, recently tore out 18 acres of turf and replaced it with native shrubs.
Boon said the association, which runs Rancho Santa Fe under an original planning covenant from the 1920s, would like to see locals “back away from that whole mindset that we need to be hidden behind hedges with New York State lawns.”
A few years ago, Boon said, she and her neighbors were appalled when estate owners across the street planted olive trees along their winding driveway, leaving the perimeter of their grounds without landscaping. Now, she says, she is impressed that they had the foresight to avoid thirsty plantings.
Despite financial incentives, most homeowners aren’t exactly embracing the native plant look. Residential customers have, in total, replaced less than an acre of grass this year under a turf rebate program, according to the district.
Barry said that although estate owners are converting to less thirsty types of grass, going without a lawn would diminish property values.
“That’s like the frame of a house. And you know, they are beautiful,” she said. “You look at these lawns and it reminds you of Europe, of Ireland or England.”
Rancho Santa Fe is not alone. A recent UCLA study of Los Angeles neighborhoods found that wealthy households — with bigger lots and homes — on average used about three times more water than less affluent ones.
Regardless of income, Southern Californians have engaged in a long, passionate romance with the lawn.
The availability of abundant water supplies from hundreds of miles away not only sustained the Southland’s explosive 20th century growth, it allowed Midwestern and Eastern transplants who streamed into the region to replicate the lush yards of their far-away homes.
“I don’t think anybody gave it a second thought. It just became the norm,” said San Diego landscape architect Martin Schmidt. “It didn’t cost anything because the water was so plentiful and so cheap.”
As one of California’s worst droughts on record grinds on, more water agencies are paying homeowners to get rid of grass. They are also upping existing rebates. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is paying homeowners $3.75 a square foot for the first 1,500 square feet of lawn they replace with drought tolerant plants.
But even that won’t cover the whole cost of a professional yard makeover, which runs about $5 a square foot, Schmidt said.
Because water remains relatively inexpensive, for many it’s easier and cheaper to keep doing what they have always done: turn on the lawn sprinklers, albeit now with a drought-induced tinge of guilt.
That needs to change, some experts say.
Stephanie Pincetl, director of the California Center for Sustainable Communities at UCLA, argues that Los Angeles should install separate water meters for outdoor and indoor use and expand its existing two-tier pricing structure, which charges households more for water used over a base allocation. The city should add a third or even fourth tier, she said, and ratchet up the cost of high water use on big lots.
“The responsibility is that, you have a larger lot, you have a greater responsibility to reduce water use,” she said.