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Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2008 | No one uses more water in San Diego than the city government itself, consuming enough last year to have supplied 25,000 households.

On water conservation, the city is leading by example. But not everyone is following.

As Mayor Jerry Sanders repeatedly called for the region to voluntarily cut water consumption 10 percent, the city government he oversees and its parks department helped lead the way, trimming use 13 percent when comparing July 2007-June 2008 with the same period a year earlier.

Those cuts came during the first call for sustained water conservation since drought struck the region from 1987-1992. But they were not equaled by many other government agencies and large businesses that buy water from the city. While city-wide consumption dropped 7 percent, many major users didn’t contribute. During a time when they were being told to use less, nearly half of San Diego’s 94 largest users consumed more, according to usage records obtained through a California Public Records Act request.

Of the city’s top 10 users, the University of California, San Diego (No. 3), San Diego Unified School District (No. 6), SeaWorld (No. 8), Unified Port of San Diego (No. 9) and San Diego State University (No. 10) all consumed more water. Both universities and the school district completed construction projects, adding new building space.

Among the top 10, only the city (No. 1), U.S. Navy (No. 2) and a grouping of federal agencies including the U.S. Border Patrol, VA San Diego Medical Center and Justice Department (No. 5) cut use by the requested 10 percent.

While several agencies saved water by installing water-efficient upgrades, the city government, which uses the majority of its drinking water to maintain almost 400 parks and irrigate golf courses in Balboa Park and Mission Bay, simply told its 340 grounds maintenance workers to use less. With the mayor — their boss — repeatedly calling for conservation, city workers responded.

“It’s a concentrated effort by the staff that maintain the parks to realize there is only so much water to go around and we all play a part in the big picture,” said Stacey LoMedico, the city’s parks and recreation director. “We have a large number of turf areas and landscaped areas. We have to water them to sustain them. But we can sustain them by using less water.”

The list of the city’s largest users offers a window into how San Diego as a city consumes water — in its businesses and governments, in its houses of education and landscapes.

It also highlights the lengths to which the region goes to keep an artificial landscape alive, the primary target for water conservation as San Diego faces 2009, a year that promises the tightest supplies San Diego has experienced in two decades. The region has been told to cut consumption 10 percent to avoid mandatory restrictions on water use next year, such as designated lawn-watering days. It must do so while businesses expand, while universities grow.

UCSD attributed its demand increase — less than 1 percent — to its addition of 800 beds of on-campus housing and 95,000 square feet of new building space. SDSU blamed a 1.5 percent increase on its growing enrollment (2,100 more students than a year before) and 200,000 square feet of new buildings that opened. San Diego Unified added five new schools. With them came 30 acres of landscaping and a 5 percent increase in water demand. SeaWorld used 7 percent more water; a spokesman said the park’s consumption varies annually depending on attendance, new attractions and maintenance projects.

Irrigation drives use for many agencies. The city estimates that half of the potable water used by San Diegans is used outside to keep landscaping lush. The Unified Port of San Diego and CalTrans (No. 4) primarily use water for irrigation. CalTrans irrigates plants along freeway shoulders and in medians. The port’s sprinklers keep 16 bayside parks green. Neither achieved the 10 percent savings.

CalTrans’ consumption dropped 3 percent, which has put it in the city’s sights. Alex Ruiz, assistant director of San Diego’s Water Department, said he has expressed concern to CalTrans about its continued expansion of landscaping. Rocks and decorative concrete have been publicly accepted in the South Bay as alternatives to low-lying ice plant, Ruiz said.

The port increased irrigation at some of its 16 parks, but a spokesman, John Gilmore, said the city overestimated its usage. Gilmore said the port’s billing shows consumption increased less than 1 percent, not 5 percent as the city’s records say.

The city’s largest users present an opportunity. The city has to reach fewer decision-makers to achieve savings than it does to net the same savings from tens of thousands of residential customers.

While the call for conservation has focused on what residents can do at home, an average household that cuts use by 10 percent will save 12,500 gallons a year. If the Port District had cut use that much, it would have saved 24.5 million gallons — the same as 1,960 homeowners making the same effort. The same reduction at UCSD would have netted 77.8 million gallons, or the same as from 6,200 homes.

Many of the city’s largest consumers buy water to use outdoors — where it is not applied as efficiently as it could be. Increasing conservation outside is vital to water agencies’ conservation efforts. But those agencies say outdoor conservation requires a long-term behavioral change: Residents and businesses must stop over-watering their landscaping or turning sprinklers on when rain is forecast.

Some large users have achieved significant reductions outdoors. The U.S. Navy, the city’s second largest user, turned off its sprinklers at its bases in Point Loma, San Diego and Coronado between Nov. 30, 2007 and late March 2008, saving an estimated 39 million gallons, said Bernie Lindsey, the Navy’s regional utilities and energy program manager. “That was an easy one,” Lindsey said.

The Navy took more steps, inside and out, as it worked to slice consumption by 533 million gallons — enough water to fill more than 650 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Outside, it replaced 7.5 acres of grass with artificial turf and drought-resistant plants. Inside, it replaced 5,000 showerheads with ultra-low-flow versions and installed 225 waterless urinals, estimated to save 25,000 gallons each per year.

Others took similar steps. The University of San Diego (No. 19) shortened the irrigation cycle on its sprinklers by two minutes. Roger Manion, an assistant vice president, estimates that will save 15 million gallons annually. While the city’s figures show USD’s annual consumption increasing, Manion said the university’s records showed a 5 percent decrease on campus.

Not all businesses believe they have significant capacity to conserve. Atlas Hotels (No. 34), which operates the Town and Country Resort in Mission Valley, posted a 76 percent consumption increase. Mike McDowell, an Atlas vice president, disputed the city’s figures, saying they didn’t count two other water meters at the resort. Consumption did increase 40 percent, McDowell said. The resort opened a new 42,000 square-foot exhibition hall, which boosted occupancy levels, he said.

The Town and Country is a large water user, McDowell said, because it’s a resort — and its customers expect it to look tropical, even if San Diego isn’t. Its consumption stands to benefit the region, he said, because more visitors mean more tax revenue.

“We can’t have the lawn dying, we can’t have the lawn shriveling, we can’t have the bird of paradise not blooming,” McDowell said. “We’re in the entertainment business. We’re trying to create perhaps a façade of being more than we are — but we’re also trying to fulfill our guests’ expectations. The expectation is that we’re not Phoenix. That’s why they come here.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly at rob.davis@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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