Water & Drought

Amid Granite Bay’s regal landscapes, residents look to conserve water

Darren Van Dusen, a conservation technician with the San Juan Water District, checks a water meter for a customer in Granite Bay who was concerned about his water use.
Darren Van Dusen, a conservation technician with the San Juan Water District, checks a water meter for a customer in Granite Bay who was concerned about his water use. hamezcua@sacbee.com

The expansive estates of the gated Wexford community in Granite Bay were built amid granite outcroppings, foothill oaks and glistening ponds. And the manicured landscapes preferred by its homeowners only added to the exquisite scenery.

On sloping grounds around Mediterranean villas and English-style country manors, residents commissioned enchanted gardens. Some selected low-water varieties of Indian hawthorn and English lavender, with towering Italian cypress or palm trees. Others went for thirsty coastal redwoods, dense hedges and vast, terraced lawns.

Amid a drought emergency, California officials are ordering steep cuts in water use for the water district that supplies Granite Bay and other upscale communities that arc around the western edge of shrinking Folsom Lake. Residents, in turn, are being asked to conserve water – and to accept a starker, drier look for their picturesque properties.

The San Juan Water District, which pulls water from Folsom Lake to supply 30,000 residents in parts of Folsom, Orangevale, Roseville and Granite Bay, ranked as the fifth-highest water user in California last summer based on per-capita consumption. Under state mandates handed down last month, residents have to cut their usage by 36 percent compared with 2013 – a category reserved for only the biggest users.

San Juan officials say the district is not a water waster and that its residents use no more water per acre than the average for California. The issue, they say, is that the homes in the area have an extraordinary amount of acreage. The median lot size of homes built in Granite Bay between 2001 and 2014, for example, was roughly 26,000 square feet – more than triple the regionwide median.

But even here, residents are starting to adapt. The water district spent $175,000 last year on a campaign to persuade residents to change their watering habits and use drought-tolerant landscaping.

It sent out mailers depicting the ever-shallower Folsom Lake and assigned conservation officers to patrol neighborhoods along the American River Canyon and Folsom Lake bluffs. Though they aren’t handing out fines for water waste, they are on the lookout for leaking sprinklers and counseling residents about two-day-a-week watering limits and water-saving landscaping practices.

The efforts, the district said, resulted in a 28 percent drop in water consumption in 2014. In June, it will impose a 10 percent drought surcharge.

Some residents are making dramatic changes in pricey landscapes.

Among them is real estate agent Mike Soares, whose regal 4,600-square-foot home sits on a nearly 1-acre lot in Wexford. Until last year, he maintained elegant lawns that wrapped around a backyard pool. Grassy landscaping also framed the triple set of stairs leading up to his house.

Last year, Soares replaced the lawn by the pool with artificial turf. Last week, he hired landscapers to rip out nearly half of his remaining grass, replacing it with a mosaic of drought-tolerant shrubs watered by drip irrigation. He said he’s spent $60,000 putting in new landscaping, soil amendments and low-mist irrigation.

“I like my lawn green, but if the only person who is walking on it is the gardener, maybe I don’t need it,” Soares said.

In the American River Canyon North neighborhood in Folsom, homeowners Les and Terri Allen also have rethought their landscape. Deep green carpets of faux turf lay in the road in front of their home last Tuesday, as landscapers stripped away the lawn to make room for the fake stuff.

“We’re just trying to do our little bit for what is going on,” said Les Allen. “And we really didn’t want a brown lawn.”

The district is pushing the city of Folsom to shut down the signature entry feature to American River North: a shimmering double waterfall cascading down a rocky precipice. District officials say the feature is a water-waster because it is subject to evaporation that requires the water to be replenished.

“We’ve talked to the city and said that may be an issue,” said Shauna Lorance, general manager of the San Juan district. “We recommend that they need to shut it off.”

For now, the city is pressing to keep the waterfall running with nonpotable reclaimed water.

The district also is working with homeowner groups in Folsom’s American River South neighborhood to take out 90 percent of the grass in communal spaces.

In 2013, San Juan residential customers used an average of 430 gallons of water a day, including roughly 600 gallons per person per day in the peak summer months. In summer 2014, they cut that to about 477 gallons per person per day. Even with a 36 percent cut over 2013, residents in the district would remain among the biggest per-capita users in the state.

The state has said it could fine local water districts as much as $10,000 a day if they don’t show progress toward meeting their conservation goals. However, Lorance said state officials are unlikely to impose sanctions on any district seen as taking serious steps to reduce consumption.

“We are gearing up to do this,” Lorance said. She said the district’s water use in April was 32 percent lower than the same month in 2013 and that the first 10 days of May brought a 40 percent reduction.

The test will be in the hotter summer months. So Lorance said the district is spending another $125,000 on its PR campaign and hiring four temporary conservation officers, on top of its three permanent ones.

One of those officers, Ken Kirkland, drove through the American River Canyon South neighborhood on a recent weekday. Manuel Zamorano, a 66-year-old retiree, flagged him down to ask what days he was allowed to water. “I’m not watering the backyard at all. It’s down to nothing,” Zamorano said, boasting of his sacrifice.

But Kirkland told him to be careful not to starve his trees. “Watch your birches,” he said. “If you underwater them too much, they get real sensitive.”

Taylor Lewis, horticulturalist for the UC Davis Arboretum and teaching nursery, said changing habits may test some residents in the San Juan district, particularly in areas such as Granite Bay with its picturesque plantings and formal English gardens.

“You can put these properties all in Sunset magazine for their landscaping quality,” Lewis said. “They were designed right, installed right and sheared right. Everything is in place for a property that has enough water for that style of landscape – where it can be watered three times a week.”

In the 145-home Wexford community, where so far there are only subtle hints of lawns drying, Soares said the residents “all watch the news” and understand the urgency of California’s water crisis. But it’s a challenge for people to figure out how to refashion their grounds for conservation.

“You could spend $100,000 redoing your landscaping,” Soares said. “The question is: How do you reduce your footprint without killing everything you’ve got?”

Judy Darling said she was grateful recently when a neighbor informed her that the family’s irrigation timer was set too permissively and that water was leaking into the gutter. They reset it to cut back.

Darling’s 8-year-old son, Landon, said his mother has told him “about 18 times” to take shorter showers. And she is starting to view her home’s streetfront fountain as something of a drought-year eyesore. “I’m not so keen on that fountain,” Darling said. “It’s beautiful from the street. But we don’t even see it from the house.”

She said she would drain it if she were staying. But her family is moving to a more spacious home in the community. Darling said the new property comes with a bonus: spartan landscaping “with a lot of bark and hardscape in the backyard.”

“It’s just more natural,” she said.

Peter Hecht: (916) 326-5539, @phecht_sacbee

Phillip Reese contributed to this report.