Portland once had one of the lowest water rates for American cities its size. But no longer. In 2001, the typical annual residential water bill was $150. Now an average bill exceeds $330—and we can expect another 14 percent hike in time for next year's bill.
The squeeze on our pocketbooks has meant turning off the faucet. The rising costs have led to more conservation, from brown lawns to low-flow devices. The average Portland home has cut its water consumption from 71,808 gallons a year more than a decade ago to 44,880 gallons today.
But some people don't feel the pain.
In 2001, WW debuted a feature called "Hydro Hogs"—the Portlanders who use more water than anybody else to fill their pools, water their roses and keep their fountains spurting. We named names and asked these big gulpers why they use so much of the city's water.
After a six-year hiatus, Hydro Hogs is back, in large part because we started to wonder about the city's aquatic elite. Was the rising price tag of Bull Run water keeping them from fully submerging in luxury?
Turns out we were wrong to worry.
For the city's biggest water customers, a few thousand extra dollars spent to sprinkle their vineyard, fill their spas and irrigate their terraced Italianate gardens is only a drop in their financial buckets. The Hydro Hogs this year are still using as much water (an average of 779,640 gallons a year) as the honorees of the past.
But here's what really stunned us: Most hadn't blinked at the size of their water bills or noticed anything amiss.
When we began running Hydro Hogs all those years ago, it was with the memory of a 1992 water shortage reminding us that natural resources should never be taken for granted.
It's still true that Bull Run isn't going to run dry soon (although if we all drained our faucets at the rate of this year's Hydro Hogs, we would empty the Bull Run reservoir seven times).
The coming year is a crucial time—you might even call it a watershed moment—for the future of Portland's water supply.
Fresh off a fight over fluoridation, the people of Portland will have to decide whether to let City Hall continue to set utility rates. Activists and business owners argue that the city can no longer afford to let politicians control the city's water, and they want an independent board elected by voters.
But environmental leaders say that's a dangerous precedent, allowing corporations to lead a coup of the city's public utility.
Yet at this moment, many of the biggest residential water users don't have a clue how much they're using. That inequality suggests a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots—the people who can't afford water and the people who can't get enough.
If we learned one thing from Hydro Hogs 2013, it's this: You can't soak the rich.
CATALINA GAITAN, EMILY SCHIOLA and AARON MESH.
BENJAMIN STUTZ AND CYNTHIA GULICK
22.4 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $4,078
This year's crowns for the king and queen of water waste go to Stutz and Gulick, owners of a $1.5 million home on Southwest Englewood Drive. (The property has a Lake Oswego address but lies in Multnomah County.) Beyond Stutz and Gulick's apple tree-lined driveway resides the 3.3-acre property's tennis court, swimming pool and a small vineyard of pinot noir grapes.
Stutz tells WW he and his wife installed a 25,000-gallon cistern on their property to collect water from their roof to feed their pool and water features, and irrigate their lawn.
"Our water use should actually be negligible because we conserve it," Stutz says.
Stutz's landscaper says the pool had a leak, and the cistern's pump malfunctioned.
"It has been fixed, but now I go back a lot to check on the water meter," Stutz says. "I'm really paranoid."
In the previous two years, the Stutz-Gulick estate on average gulped down 1.02 million gallons a year. And that doesn't count water the city believes might have leaked in 2011.
Fun fact: With all the water they used, Stutz and Gulick could have refilled that big cistern 40 times.
THOMAS AND BARBARA ROSENBAUM
20.5 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $4,033
Two years ago, the Rosenbaums used only 244,596 gallons of water at their $2.6 million, 8,400-square-foot house on Northwest Cumberland Road in the hills above Northwest Portland. They have increased their usage by almost four times since then.
Aerial photographs show the Rosenbaums have since turned much of their three-quarter-acre property into a terraced garden.
"We've had to irrigate it," says Thomas, a neurosurgeon at Legacy Good Samaritan Medical Center. "They tell me if you plant a new tree you have to water it pretty significantly for about three years, and we've had a bit of a dry spell."
Fun fact: The water the Rosenbaums used last year could fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool 1.4 times.
18.2 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $3,243
Under towering Douglas firs, Easly's tiered half acre overlooks four raised cut-stone planters. From the looks of things—we saw lots of wheelbarrows—there's still plenty of yard work going on here.
The ambiance is Far Eastern: The yard is dotted with pagodas and stone Buddhas, while the front-entrance fountain has tiny, orange Japanese goldfish.
Easly's water use has steadily increased from 736,780 gallons in 2010-11. He tells WW he's had four mainline breaks in the last year while landscaping and renovating.
"I've had a couple geysers, you know?" Easly says.
Easly contends he makes up for his water use with the carbon offsets from his trees.
"I hope more Oregonians grow plants in an urban scene," he says. "I've got spotted owls out here."
Fun fact: Easly's annual water use could fill the Oregon Coast Aquarium's seal and sea lion exhibit—nine times.
Jim and Mary Meier
18.1 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $3,272
Jim Meier is co-owner of the Herzog-Meier car dealerships—including Volkswagen, Mazda and Volvo—in Beaverton. The Meiers' water usage at their home—a 3,748-square-foot house on 1.25 acres, just off Northwest Skyline Road—has been going up steadily since 2010-11, when city records show they consumed 396,440 gallons.
Meier says the water use at the $718,000 property has gone back to pre-leak levels. "Regardless of whether I think the WW Hydro Hog articles are silly or not (I do…)," Meier wrote, "in this case, there is an easy explanation."
Fun fact: The Meiers consumed enough water to fill 52,504 beer kegs.
17.6 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $3,163
When WW asked him about his water bill, Galen raised an objection. "You got a mistake," he says. "I'm trying to figure out how I could possibly use that quantity of water."
Galen said he learned of a leak in May or June and had it fixed. "I don't know how long it was leaking," Galen says, "but I was out of the country, and my gardener found it."
The Portland Water Bureau has no report of a leak at the house, but records show Galen's water use has climbed steadily since 2011, when he used just 520,608 gallons.
Fun fact: Galen's property used enough water last year to fill 3,592 king-size water beds.
17 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $3,055
When WW visited the house, we were greeted by a gate. Kubicek answered the intercom and said he was on his way out and couldn't talk—then hung up. He didn't answer when we tried again and hasn't responded to our other calls.
We did get an email from Cramer in response to a note we left about their water use. "I was horrified to hear that," Cramer wrote. "I am a very environmentally conscious person—I drive a hybrid car, and think constantly about the careful use of water."
Cramer says the property has a pool, spa, vegetable garden and eight fruit trees she says she waters by hand "so as not to waste water." She says they've suffered repeated leaks in their hot tub, which drained three times this year. (She included invoices for repair bills totaling $1,571 as evidence.)
She estimated her hot tub holds about 500 gallons, which would only account for about 1,500 gallons. "Doesn't seem like much in the context of 759,000 gallons." she wrote.
Cramer also says she just learned there may have been a leak in the property's sprinkler system.
"Water conservation is something that needs attention every day," she wrote. "I have never before appeared on your list, and I hope never to be again."
Fun fact: Kubicek's house last year used enough water to fill about 3.8 million wine bottles.
15.4 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $3,017
The colonial-style house sits on a .35-acre, wedged-shape lot. The property has more than 189 feet of frontage, which allows Santangelo to display a deep-green manicured lawn with tall, spiral-shaped shrubs, benches, and a bubbling three-tiered fountain.
We tried to reach Santangelo by phone, knocking at his door, and leaving letters at his home and office. We got word back that he had no comment for this story.
Fun fact: With the amount of water Santangelo's house used last year, you could flush a high-efficiency toilet (which uses 1.28 gallons per flush) 538,208 times.
15 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $2,947
When Hedinger's $1.2 million West Hills home made the No. 2 spot on WW's list in 2007, he declined to comment for the print story. But when our news partner, KATU, gave him a call about his Hydro Hog status, he did open his gates. Down a windy concrete driveway, he revealed lots of green grass, foliage and a stone-lined swimming pool—full of underprivileged children from a local church he had invited for the day just in time for TV cameras.
The 3,977-square-foot house is well-hidden behind a gate and long driveway, although aerial photos show swaths of golf-course-quality grass, and public records show the property also boasts a guest house.
Multiple messages left in Hedinger's home mailbox and on several phone lines were not returned.
Fun fact: Hedinger's water use is enough to fill 25.4 million of the 3.4-ounce containers for liquid allowed in carry-on luggage at airports.
WILLIAM G. BOYD
14.9 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $2,899
Boyd is a former king of the Hydro Hogs: He was the city's No. 1 water user in 2004, guzzling 792,132 gallons.
His $5.4 million West Hills castle—property records says it's more than 14,000 square feet—with a brick façade and towering chimney, was once owned by car dealer Scott Thomason. Its gated grounds are well-guarded by massive rhododendrons, ferns and towering evergreens. But aerial shots show a sapphire pool and lush emerald landscaping.
Boyd, co-founder of Portland startup Webtrends, now runs the 2-year-old electronic-music concert What the Festival on land he bought south of The Dalles. He says he's worked the last 10 years to replace all his sprinkler lines and toilets with low-flow fixtures.
Boyd says he may be resigned to appearing on the list, because of his property's large, historic "parklike setting."
"It's 2 acres of grass and old-growth trees, as well as nine bedrooms," Boyd says. "It's beautiful to look at, but it is a lot of maintenance, for sure."
His water usage climbed by more than 200,000 gallons from the previous year, even though he says he hasn't put the pool or the hot tub to use this summer.
"I'm going to have our landscaper do another look at the water usage," he says, "and see if there's anything going on there."
Fun fact: Boyd's water consumption is enough for 13,314 bubble baths.
14.8 times the average Portland household
Annual water charges: $2,660
The last entry on our list of water guzzlers is a neighbor of this year's champions. Cain lives less than a quarter-mile from Stutz and Gulick, the million-gallon wonders at the top of our list.
Cain is a real-estate mogul who builds giant shopping and entertainment centers in the suburbs. His company, Gramor Development, built Beaverton's Progress Ridge TownSquare—a hilltop nightlife plaza anchored by a Cinetopia multiplex. This spring his firm announced it's building a Wal-Mart in Sherwood.
Cain's 5,342-square-foot, $1.3 million brick home is behind an electronic security gate. But the gate was wide open—so we walked down the long driveway and knocked. Nobody answered, but we noted the 6-foot-tall flowering bushes surrounding the mother-in-law apartment across the front courtyard.
Aerial photos show a pool with a diving board out back. It's near a stone hot tub and a fountain bubbling out of a red vase. The rear of his 2.4-acre property—behind the tennis court—slopes steeply down into a plot of tall grassland.
"I have a really nicely landscaped big yard," Cain tells WW, "so maybe I'm overwatering it. I will get to the bottom of this."
Fun fact: Wal-Mart sells bottled water for $1.10 a gallon—or $728,178 for the amount Cain used last year. That's 273 times more than what Cain paid for the city's water.
HOW WE REPORTED THIS STORY:
WW asked the Portland Water Bureau for the top residential water users during the city's most recent fiscal year, July 1, 2012, through June 30, 2013. (We specifically sought single-family homes, so the city left out duplexes, apartment buildings, dorms, and so on.) WW identified the top 10 water users from that list, and then asked for historical data for those accounts, including reports of water leaks.
The city didn't provide the names on the accounts, but we matched up the addresses with the property owners. We used Multnomah County assessor's data to calculate the size of the houses, the acreage of the lots and the real market value of the homes. We also used aerial photography (Google Earth, for example) and site visits to describe the properties.