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SoCal Family That Uses 14 Million Gallons of Water a Year Has Actually Cut Back a Ton

There's certainly been no shortage of villains during California's historic drought over the last few years: there was the Wet Prince of Bel Air, sucking down 11.8 million gallons a year and drawing the wrath of a "drought posse" that combed the neighborhood to track the thirsty household down. Beverly Hills as a city has seemed impervious to the implications of a statewide drought. Then there was news last month out of Rancho Santa Fe (one of the state's perpetually thirstiest cities) that a new water-wasting champion had emerged—one property in the affluent San Diego County neighborhood was found to be using 13.8 million gallons in the year ending in September, enough for 110 typical homes. We now have a probable culprit, and according to the LA Times, that's actually a huge reduction; they were at one point using 57 million gallons on their estate. After cutting back about 43 million gallons over the years, Rancho Santa Fe residents Marty and Pamela Wygod say they still use about 50 percent of their 2013 total of 28 million gallons. Only now, they'd like to spin themselves into the poster child for extreme water conservation.

The Wygods—who have about 77 acres, according to PropertyShark—have slowly been chipping away at their insane water usage over the years, getting it down to 28 million gallons in 2013. Marty estimates his total for the last quarter of 2015 will be down "at least 50% compared to 2013," putting him only a million or two gallons above Bel Air's "Wet Prince." That's a hell of a lot of water, but Wygod is proud of his efforts, saying it's his "responsibility" to "set the best example in the state."

Yes, you too can shed millions of gallons off your water bill just like Marty Wygod. All it takes is first using an enormous amount of water, then replacing the grass around the infinity pool with drought-tolerant plants, getting "special equipment in from Australia" to drip irrigate your acres of fruit trees, and letting part of your huge estate turn brown. Wygod is also willing to part with acres of lemon groves if they prove unsustainable. This might not be a problem, though, since he recently received an agricultural exclusion for water used to maintain his lemon groves.

Commercial agriculture exemptions are a fun trick that some Rancho Santa Fe residents have caught on to recently. Farming operations were not included in Governor Jerry Brown's mandatory water cutbacks, so water used for crops doesn't count toward a property's total usage. In June, the Santa Fe Irrigation District approved water exemptions for properties engaged in commercial agriculture, cutting their water restrictions from 45 percent to just 15 percent. Many properties in affluent Rancho Santa Fe happen to have their own lemon groves, so under the commercial agriculture exemption loophole, residents can sell the lemons from their groves so that they qualify as commercial growers, and thus face less harsh water cutbacks and fines.

To qualify for an exemption, a grower must sell at least $1,000 worth of produce annually for each acre they farm. Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently told TakePart that the definition of commercial agriculture is very broadly defined and that "you could drive a Mack truck through this loophole." A small produce operation could mitigate water costs for properties facing overage fines, or simply cover up excessive water usage that's actually for lawns and other non-agriculture watering. The Wygods' cutback estimate might not show the whole picture.

The Santa Fe Irrigation District has no real incentive to stop the faux farming either. It still has to reduce water usage in the district by 36 percent, but water used for commercial agriculture doesn't count toward those totals. Santa Fe Irrigation District management analyst Jessica Parks says there are 400 to 500 acres of commercial lemon groves in the area, and her company is actively communicating with customers in the area about whether they might qualify for commercial agriculture exemptions. According to Parks, SFID wants to "capture as much as we can for ag use." In a nutshell, Rancho Santa Fe could potentially use the same (very large) amount of water as they've been using, but still squeak by on paper as having fulfilled mandatory cutbacks.

Obviously Rancho Santa Fe is struggling with the reality of the drought. When mandatory cutbacks were announced in April, their usage went up 9 percent. They've since been able to cut down a bit, beating their 36-percent mandate by four percent, but the numbers remain distressing. Even at a 40 percent reduction, they have a per capita daily water use of 357 gallons a day; the state average is only 97 gallons per day. Rancho Santa Fe just isn't conserving at the same level as the rest of the state and their lack of commitment could start to affect others—Quinn says to make up for Rancho Santa Fe's use, others will have to step up their conservation efforts, and "that will likely come from communities that already have had to conserve more to offset what is a lifestyle choice for some of the wealthiest Californians."
· Rancho Santa Fe's top water users have cut down dramatically [LA Times]
· Rancho Santa Fe, Solana Beach water district approves agricultural exemption from mandatory cuts [Del Mar Times]
· 8 Excuses From the People Using the Most Water in California [Curbed LA]
· Rich SoCal Water-Wasters Throwing Big Baby Tantrum About Drought Cutbacks [Curbed LA]
· The New Biggest Residential Water User in California Used 13.8 Million Gallons in a Year [Curbed LA]