A variety of water-saving options discussed at Rancho Santa Fe community drought response meeting


In the thick of the California drought, Rancho Santa Fe has weathered a reputation for being water wasters. However, many residents have proven that they are not only conscious of the drought but are willing to put in the work to do their part to conserve and keep the properties that they value looking beautiful as well.

To help members find even more water solutions for their homes, the Rancho Santa Fe Association hosted a community drought response meeting on July 8 featuring conservation alternatives, such as the use of drip irrigation and complete overhauls of water-guzzling green lawns.

Before the meeting’s presentations began, residents could check out exhibitor booths set up on the Rancho Santa Fe Garden Club patio. Sprinkler Doctors touted water savers and Solana Succulents of Solana Beach showed an array of beautiful, water-wise plants.

Other local vendors included RECON Native Plants, which, at certain times, has over 200 or more native species on hand; Hunter Industries, which has been helping the Association retrofit its irrigation system over the last three years; and Van Slyke Landscaping of Encinitas, which specializes in distinct design using the latest water conservation products, technology and services, such as weather-based Smart Controllers, drip and micro-irrigation, low-volume rotary nozzles and professional lawn aeration.

The night’s keynote speaker was Kelly Fore Dixon of Nature Designs, who has a lot of experience in Rancho Santa Fe helping convert properties to low water-use landscaping.

“Embrace the new Rancho Santa Fe and the changes in our natural landscape,” Fore Dixon said. “The days of tropical plants are fading, we’re getting back to a natural plant palette for all of us.”

Fore Dixon said the reality is that San Diegans live in a “beautiful desert” where it averages only six inches of rainfall a year.

“A mere 1,000 square feet of fescue lawn requires 35,000 gallons of water a year,” Fore Dixon said, noting the average property is two to three acres per resident in Rancho Santa Fe.

Fore Dixon said residents should look closely at the lawn on their property that nobody ever uses or walks on besides the guy with a lawn mower.

Fore Dixon said it’s important that homeowners know their irrigation systems — they should inspect every operating head to look for leaks, adjust overspray and avoid runoff.

“Rancho Santa Fe is famous for really high water pressure,” Fore Dixon said.

High water pressure is a major cause of leaks, pipe damage and water waste.

She said water pressure can be checked with a gage and should be around 50 to 70 psi (pounds per square inch) — she said often in Rancho Santa Fe properties she has checked have been up above 170 psi.

Fore Dixon also advised homeowners to learn about precipitation rates of different irrigation heads, such as spray, rotor, stream and MP rotators, which are the most efficient.

MP rotators are an alternative to traditional sprinkler heads — the nozzles feature a unique multi-trajectory rotating stream that delivers water at a steady rate. According to Hunter Industries, the slower rate allows water to gently soak in at rates the soil can absorb and replacing a conventional spray head or pop-up sprinkler can result in water savings of up to 30 percent.

Converting to a drip irrigation is also an option; pipes are set up on a grid on the topsoil and water is put out very slowly, about .6 gallons an hour.

As Santa Fe Irrigation District Manager Mike Bardin said, residents need to help themselves and become their own “water managers” and begin to make decisions about water use. He advised people to take advantage of the district’s free water audits, learn to read their meter and understand what the numbers mean and use the district website’s water calculator to compare usage.

“We’re not there to penalize you, we’re there to help you,” Bardin said. “It’s a challenge for all of us...but we’re going to get through this.”

Extreme lawn makeovers

Fore Dixon gave examples of successful redesigns on several Rancho Santa Fe properties. One home received a $51,000 rebate for converting 25,000 square feet of lawn. The owners replaced grassy front lawn areas with native plantings and chose artificial turf for their backyard.

“They just still wanted to have a lawn,” Fore Dixon said. “Artificial turf is not everyone’s choice but it’s an option.”

The homeowners also installed Carex pansa, a native meadow, to give their side yard a beautiful and natural look that requires less irrigation, weed control and maintenance. Along their long driveway, they converted from a spray to a drip irrigation system, which reduced their overall usage by 50 percent.

Fore Dixon has seen homeowners opt for lawn alternatives such as San Diego bentgrass and gazania ground coverings or planting gardens instead of lawns.

Another example saw a homeowner receive a $13,000 rebate for removing 13,000 square feet of lawn. They replaced the grass with succulents and gravel and reduced water usage by 40 percent by converting from spray to drip.

One homeowner converted a 3-acre citrus grove to an olive grove, also growing grapes on the vine. Fore Dixon said she knows people love their citrus groves in Rancho Santa Fe and property owners can keep them alive and beautiful by increasing spacing in the groves or reducing by half.

“Whether you like Mediterranean drought-tolerant plants, natives or succulents, I think you can find an alternative that suits you,” Fore Dixon said.

Other water saving tips from Fore Dixon:

• Mulch, mulch, mulch. Bear in mind the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District advises against mulch all the way up to a structure.

• Cap irrigation heads, aerate usable laws so that water will be absorbed more quickly.

• Reduce swimming pool water use. Put a cover on pools to reduce evaporation and heat loss. Check for pool leaks with the bucket test — mark the water level in the pool and fill a bucket with water, marking the level in the bucket as well. Monitor both over a period of time and if the pool water level lowers faster, there is a leak.

• For new construction or remodels, consider planting bigger beds and smaller lawns and smaller, shallower pools.

The value of trees

Another big concern during the drought is keeping trees alive, stressed by speaker Melanie Conomikes of Tree San Diego, a non-profit dedicated to increasing the urban forest and ensuring the right trees in the right places are properly maintained.

“Trees should be given a higher priority when cutting back on landscape watering, because lawns and shrubs can be easily removed and replaced by trees take many years to mature and are expensive to remove and replace,” Conomikes said.

Trees require a surprisingly little amount of water and have many benefits such as providing shade, saving energy, improving air quality and even increasing property values. Small trees only need 20 gallons a month, the same amount most people use in one shower. Large and mature trees need about 30 to 40 gallons a month, the amount used in an average load of laundry.

Conomikes advised people to set up a separate drip irrigation zone for trees, such as using a tree ring irrigation contraption, to water without waste and with enough so that water can soak the soil under the trees. Adding mulch around the tree can also significantly reduce the need for water.

Trees can also be watered using a hose with a spray nozzle (obeying the water district guidelines) or by using collected warm-up water from the shower.

The Association’s reduction efforts

Arnold Keene, the Association’s field manager, said the parks and recreation department is focused on creating a long-term sustainable environment that is compatible with the historic landscape.

Keene said they have done things such as get rid of “water-sucking poppies” and changing the palette to one that requires less water.

The entry work done recently at La Bajada is an example of a more natural plant palette — Keene said drought-tolerant doesn’t have to mean cactus and stone rock gardens.

“By clearing out the non-native plants, our natives are thriving,” Keene said. “By thinning out and opening up your garden with some pruning, you can end up with an enhanced and healthier landscape.”

Tim Barrier, the Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club course superintendent, said they have taken many steps toward water conservation. In 2002, they converted 30 acres of their “cool season” grass to drought-tolerant Bermuda grass; in 2009 they retrofitted their irrigation system; and in 2014, they removed 18.6 acres of turf and replaced it with drought-tolerant California natives

The RSF Golf Club had originally planned to stretch its turf removal project over two years, doing nine holes at a time but when the club became aware of the Metropolitan Water District’s rebate program it was one of the first projects to be approved. Due to its fast action, the club received a $1.6 million rebate for the work from the MWD fund that is now exhausted. The turf removal has created a 50 percent savings on water use and the club has also implemented a 45 percent water cutback in July.

Barrier said the club continues to research the possibility of bringing reclaimed water to the Ranch and exploring a desalination program for the club’s well water.

Barrier said the club will “endeavor to persevere” and figure out ways to conserve and also deliver a great golf experience for residents.