While the rest of the nation freezes, California is warm, sunny and dry -- so dry that state water officials are urging consumers to make water conservation a daily habit.
And tech can play a role. Several local water districts are offering conservation incentives, including rebates for households that replace old washing machines with high-efficiency models, swap out green lawns for drought-tolerant plants or put in new "greywater" systems that divert used laundry water to parched landscapes.
Greywater refers to water from bathroom sinks, showers, tubs, and washing machines that can safely be reused for outdoor irrigation or toilet flushing. As California's water woes deepened, a new greywater code was incorporated into the state plumbing code in 2010, making most greywater systems legal.
"Greywater systems are super low-tech," said Sherry Lee Bryan, chair of the Central Coast Greywater Alliance in Santa Cruz. "You can do it yourself for about $200, or hire someone to do it for about $750."
The Santa Clara Valley Water District kicked off a new program Jan. 1 that provides a $100 rebate for homeowners who install a "laundry to landscape" greywater system, where runoff water from laundry loads is diverted to backyard gardens. While the greywater may look "dirty," it is a safe way to water ornamental plants and fruit trees, as well as some vegetables like tomatoes and corn. Homeowners who want to use greywater systems are advised to use all-natural, biodegradable soaps.
Greywater designs vary, but the Central Coast Greywater Alliance advises that each should include an accessible, clearly labeled, three-way valve, and that each release point of the greywater irrigation system be covered with at least 2 inches of mulch, rock or soil, or a soil shield.
"Laundry-to-landscape systems don't require a permit, and if you are really handy you can do it yourself," said Jerry De La Piedra, a water conservation program manager at the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "There are certain soaps that are landscape friendly, and we plan to host workshops about how to install these systems in the spring."
The Santa Clara Valley Water District also offers up to a $200 rebate for purchasing an Energy Star clothes washer and $125 for installing a high-efficiency toilet.
California just finished up the driest year on record, affecting everything from farms to ski slopes to municipal water districts. Forecasts predict below-average rainfall for the entire month of January. California gets much of its water from the Sierra Nevada snowpacks -- snowpacks that recently were measured at only 20 percent of average levels.
"Every year we try to hammer the point home that water conservation needs to become a way of life," said De La Piedra. "In a single-family home, the average person uses 100 to 120 gallons of water per day. Taking a shorter shower can save 5 to 10 gallons per day per shower."
In Sweden, a technology startup called Orbital Systems is working on a shower unit that constantly recycles water, saving not only water but the natural gas used to heat it. But for now, installing low-flow shower heads is an inexpensive and simple way to reduce home water consumption.
Not sure if you need a new shower head? A good rule of thumb is to set a standard 2-quart saucepan on the floor of the shower, in the middle of the shower stream. Turn the shower on full and count how long it takes to fill the pan. If it takes less than 12 seconds, consider switching to a low-flow shower head. Many have the flow-rate imprinted on the side; it should read 2.5 gpm (gallons per minute) or less.
The East Bay Municipal Utility District, or EBMUD, serves 322,000 homes in a 331-square-mile area that stretches from Crockett to Berkeley, Oakland, and south through the San Ramon Valley. EBMUD currently offers consumers free water-conserving shower heads, faucet aerators and hose nozzles. The devices can be mailed to customers of the district, or picked up at the EMBUD offices in downtown Oakland.
Then there's the lawn. Several water districts are urging consumers to forgo green grass for drought-tolerant plants.
"When it comes to residential water use, outdoor water use is where there's the most room for improvement," said Andrea Pook of EBMUD.
EBMUD is offering rebates worth up to $2,500 to qualifying single-family homes and multifamily unites that convert sprinklers to in-line drip irrigation, replace traditional irrigation timers with self-adjusting models and install submeters to improve leak detection and irrigation management.
The Santa Clara Valley Water District also has a Landscape Conversion Rebate of $1 per square foot for converting lawns to low-water-usage landscapes.
Elizabeth Scott of the California Department of Water Resources urges consumers to turn off sprinklers, invest in water-wise landscaping and take note of their daily water habits.
"We're always campaigning for water conservation, whether it is a wet year or a potential drought," said Scott. "We're talking a lot about conservation now because we are looking at potential water shortages."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
Customers of the Santa Clara Valley Water District: http://www.valleywater.org/programs/rebates.aspx
Customers of the East Bay Municipal Utility District: http://www.ebmud.com/for-customers/for-residential-customers/residential-conservation-rebates-and-services
Central Coast Greywater Alliance: http://centralcoastgreywater.org/
Save Our Water: http://www.saveourh2o.org/