In water use, these folks reign
Seattle Times staff reporter
Call it the trickle-down theory: Of all the lush lawns and manicured gardens in Seattle, one of the homes using the most water this year is maintained, in part, by taxpayers.
In the first quarter of 2001 - as University of Washington scientists and other public officials were warning of a pending drought - the university president's mansion consumed nearly three times what the median Seattle area household does in a whole year.
In fact, in those three months the ornately landscaped 35-room, 1.37-acre property went through 212,000 gallons, according to figures from Seattle Public Utilities. The median household uses about 80,000 gallons a year.
"Nobody here can answer the question precisely why it happened," said Jerri McCray, assistant vice president for facilities at the UW.
As residents are being asked to cut back water use by 10 percent during this year's drought, many of the top residential water customers are struggling to come to grips with how much H20 they use - and where it goes.
A Seattle Times public-records request for the top residential water users in Seattle and Bellevue showed that some of the area's thirstiest households used 20 or even 50 times more water than most homeowners.
No. 1 in both communities: Bill Gates.
In a year's time, Gates' Medina house went through 4.7 million gallons of water - enough for every one of Seattle Public Utilities' 1.3 million customers to flush a toilet. The family's water bill for 2000: $24,828.
"Bill and Melinda are very concerned; they are very surprised," said Trevor Neilson, Gates' family spokesman. "Those of us who live around here have not often thought about water as a scarce commodity."
Most of the Seattle Public Utility figures show water use for the year 2000 - well before concerns were raised this year about conservation. But in a region where water usually seems plentiful, the discovery that volume matters has some of Puget Sound's most influential homeowners rethinking their water use.
Ask aeronautical engineer James Raisbeck.
In the year 2000, Raisbeck's 100-year-old Seward Park home went through 1.89 million gallons of water - more than any other homeowner in Seattle proper, and 23 times what the median household used.
The well-known philanthropist, who keeps his spread well-watered for hosting fund-raisers for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the opera or the ballet, attributes the distinction, in part, to a leaky pool that forced him to cycle water through repeatedly.
"We have almost 5 acres, all of it in lawns and gardens, all of it sprinkled - and that's unusual," he said. Then he added, proudly, "But our lawn, in 2001, is no longer going to be the greenest one in Seattle. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if this was the year brown was in."
In Seattle, the top 10 water users ranged from Raisbeck to developer Stuart Rolfe, who used slightly more than 800,000 gallons last year.
Some, such as retired contractor Riley Pleas - a part-time Laurelhurst resident - seemed surprised and curious. He used 856,000 gallons last year, and says much of it went to watering four neighboring lots, which are owned by his children.
"Huh," he said. "Well, now that we know, we'll cut it down."
Businessman Kenneth Alhadeff, who helped lead the fight against 1998's anti-affirmative action initiative I-200, and whose family once owned the Longacres horse track, was deeply disappointed. He is a big contributor to conservation causes, and "my family is exceptionally sensitive to the environment.
"We live in a pretty big house on a big lot, but this is mind-boggling."
Alhadeff ranked ninth in Seattle water use, at 815,000 gallons. He suspects much of the water went to re-landscaping his yard - the equivalent of seven lots. He and Raisbeck also pointed out that their water use - when calculated on a square-foot basis - was well within range of most homeowners who have significantly smaller yards.
But Alhadeff also said he planned to be very aggressive about conservation this year.
"The question is should we let our yards go dry now if conservation efforts make it necessary? Absolutely," he said. "Should we let our plants die? Absolutely."
Other top users were Keith McCaw's Lake Washington estate, which used 1.7 million gallons; construction magnate Mario A. Segale, who used 1.1 million; and Skyway Luggage owner Henry Kotkins Jr., just under 1 million gallons.
A few, such as Kotkins, questioned why their water use was of any interest.
"If there's an implication that there's something wrong, I take exception to that," he said. "We're paying for the water, there's no regulation out there that says we shouldn't be doing it. We're not profligate spenders or wasters of the resource."
"Am I surprised? No. We have one of the biggest homes in the city," said Kotkins. "But in the region, the biggest homes aren't all in the city."
He's right. Bill and Melinda Gates, who get their water from Bellevue, could save enough water to supply almost six homes if they cut use by 10 percent at their $109 million Medina home. Another top Bellevue-area water user is ex-Microsoft President Jon Shirley.
Under construction, his Medina home used 1.4 million gallons, most of which Shirley attributed to a broken pipe and other water leaks that washed over new vegetation and right into Lake Washington.
"I got the bill and marched right down to the project and said, `Where's it going?' " Shirley said. "It was a very expensive experience."
Neilson said groundskeepers at the Gateses' 37,000-square-foot estate presume the culprits are the home's irrigation and air-cooling systems. They are searching for ways to pare back water use.
But Neilson also pointed out that the Microsoft founder's mansion is as much a business office as a home, and routinely hosts conferences and large gatherings.
UW officials said the same thing. While President Richard McCormick lives at the mansion, it is primarily a conference center that last year hosted 54 events, some with hundreds of guests. It has 11 bathrooms and an in-house catering staff.
But school officials were at a loss to explain why water use so far this year is nearly three times what it was the same period last year.
"I've looked at the bills and it's extremely curious," McCray said.
In 1991, the UW mansion was among the top 10 water users, as was the home of construction magnate Mario Segale. No. 1 that year: the Denny-Blaine lakefront home of Andrea Selig, who used 1.75 million gallons.
These days, however, homeowners serious about water conservation could learn from Selig.
In the past decade, she's managed to squeeze her annual water use to just more than 700,000 gallons - a lot, she maintains, but at least 1 million gallons less than in 1991.
Selig hired leak experts, who fixed many of her eight toilets. She repaired leaks outside, cut her lawn watering in half, put in less-thirsty plants, fixed humidifiers and plugged her lily pond so the water didn't drain and refill. She stopped re-circulating water in her pool, opting to scrub the buildup by hand instead.
"I'm the poster child for this; it's now very serious business to me," she said. "I think I've driven my kids nuts over it. But it's fun, it's easy and it's worth it," she said. "And I'm not done yet."
Craig Welch can be reached at 206-464-2093 or firstname.lastname@example.org.