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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.

February 22, 1991|LEONARD BERNSTEIN and BARRY M. HORSTMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

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.

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