The way Chris Dundon, Contra Costa Water District's conservation coordinator, tells the story, the customer who called for advice was a transplant from San Francisco with a yard so large it required 28 watering stations. Most were drip irrigation, some were sprinklers, and nearly all were broken. That's what accounted for his enormous water bill.

"He'd been using 3,000 to 5,000 gallons a day," said Dundon, who showed him the repairs that were needed. "After that, his water bill dropped from over $300 to about $60."

The story is an extreme one -- a typical household consumes about 250 gallons a day -- but it brings home a broader point: Inattention to water usage leads to water waste. As you may have heard, California is running a bit dry.

A broken water sprinkler sprays wildly onto the sidewalk and street on Ricardo Drive in Piedmont, Calif. on May 30, 2014. (Nick Lammers/Bay Area News Group
A broken water sprinkler sprays wildly onto the sidewalk and street on Ricardo Drive in Piedmont, Calif. on May 30, 2014. (Nick Lammers/Bay Area News Group Archives)

Dundon's department specializes in conservation surveys, at the request of the customer, during which a technician spends an hour or so with the homeowner, running a checklist of ways water might escape.

"The program is designed to show customers how much water they're using," he said. "Then we show them where they're using it. We teach them how to read their meter."

A typical call begins with the irrigation system, a stopwatch and eyes on the meter. Then comes the math. If each of four stations runs 10 gallons a minute for 12 minutes a day for five days a week ... wow, 2,400 gallons of water disappeared. Maybe that can be reduced.

"People like to tell me they're taking three-minute showers," Dundon said. "I tell them watering their front lawn is like a whole basketball team showering each day."


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Dundon is careful to explain that conservation is not a quick fix to water woes. It's a process that yields cumulative benefits. His office typically audits 500 or more households a year -- with heightened interest this year, the number may surpass 700 -- but he's looking at the long-term picture.

"We're nibbling away at the apple," he said. "If over the next 40 years, we've saved 10,000 acre feet, that's a big chunk of water, and it doesn't negatively affect consumers."

Bent, broken or blocked pop-up sprinkler heads are frequent offenders. So are torn diaphragms in sprinkler valves. If there's a green patch in a brown yard, it likely indicates a break in the line. The biggest indoor headache is old toilet flappers that still flap but don't seal.

At the end of a survey, consumers get a list of recommended actions, none of which is required. They also get cards to return with evaluations of the survey, which have been overwhelmingly positive. "The one negative we constantly get," Dundon said, "is, 'Why didn't I know about this before?'" (For a survey, call 925-688-8320.)

Contra Costa is not alone in conservation efforts. The East Bay Municipal Utility District provides do-it-yourself home survey kits and also does home audits. Both districts give cash rebates for water-efficient toilets, clothes washers and lawn conversions.

Perhaps it's no surprise that water usage in their districts has declined. In the four months after EBMUD called for voluntary reductions this year, consumption dropped 10 percent compared with the same period last year. Contra Costa, which measures usage against numbers established before recent droughts (from 2005-2007), reports a 17 percent reduction in total consumption since then.

There's room for more conservation. The key is attentive consumers.

Next time you've got time on your hands, check out your sprinkler heads.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.