The Loophole That Could Let the Wealthy Escape Mandatory Water Restrictions

Own a large California estate with fruit trees? Sell some avocados and you might be classified as a farmer exempt from reducing your water use.

An estate in Rancho Santa Fe, California. (Photo: Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

May 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

Amid a worsening drought, California may have inadvertently opened the floodgates for the wealthiest water wasters.

When state officials last week adopted regulations imposing the first-ever mandatory water restrictions on California cities, they allowed urban water agencies to exempt supplies for agriculture use from the cutbacks. That’s because farms are not subject to the executive order issued by Gov. Jerry Brown on April 1. Now, some environmentalists fear that will allow owners of lushly landscaped residential estates that sport, say, an avocado grove to escape reductions in consumption that range as high as 36 percent. Those wealthy communities already rank as California’s biggest water hogs, consuming 10 times the water per person of some cities.

“The code that defines commercial agriculture is quite broad, and you could drive a Mack truck through this loophole,” said Tracy Quinn, a water policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles. “Even large residential landscapes with a few avocado trees or lemon trees where the owner sells a bushel here or there could be deemed commercial agriculture.”

If big residential properties are exempted from the reductions and California doesn’t meet a mandatory 25 percent statewide cutback in water consumption, regulators could issue further restrictions that would hit lower-income people the hardest, Quinn said.

“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,” she said.

A representative of the State Water Resources Control Board did not respond to a request for comment.

All eyes will be on places such as Rancho Santa Fe in Southern California. Residents of the exclusive enclave of sprawling estates in San Diego County used nearly 605 gallons of water per person a day between July and September 2014, according to state records.

In contrast, residents of San Francisco consumed 45 gallons per person a day. That means that although the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which serves Rancho Santa Fe and two other communities, has only 2.3 percent of the population of San Francisco, its customers use the equivalent of 15 percent of the water delivered to the Northern California metropolis.

“We have 400 to 500 acres of commercial lemon groves in our area,” said Jessica Parks, a management analyst with the Santa Fe Irrigation District, which must reduce water consumption by 36 percent. “But unfortunately, those groves are on residential property.”

“We have to actually communicate with each of those customers about whether they would qualify as commercial ag,” she added. “We want to capture as much as we can for ag use.”

Adding to the complexity is the task of determining how much water a resident is using, for instance, to irrigate lemon trees, and how much to fill a swimming pool or keep acres of landscaping green.

State regulators require urban water districts to certify that a property is using water for commercial agriculture.

Eric Larson, the executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau, said he thinks urban water districts will be vigilant about screening out faux farmers.

“I see absolutely zero incentive for a city or water district to let this happen,” he said. “If someone who has a large property with fruit trees on it tries to pass that off as a commercial farm, cities and water districts will take a close look, because that’s where they’re going get their water savings.”

But Quinn said the regulations give water districts reason to try to classify as much of their water supply as possible for agriculture use.

“Once they exclude those commercial ag operations from water consumption subject to the restrictions, the district can come back to the water board and ask for lower cutbacks,” she said. “If the individual customer becomes aware that being certified as a commercial agricultural customer excludes them from having to reduce their water use, there’s certainly an incentive to sell a few avocados here and there.”

Those cutbacks are coming soon. Parks said the Santa Fe Irrigation District staff plan to recommend to the agency’s board of directors that customers be given a monthly allocation of water and be subject to financial penalties if they exceed their quota.

“I know we’re looked at because we have a high gallons-per-day use,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we’re not going to do our part and hit that 36 percent target.”