Like big earthquakes and budget deficits, droughts are a part of life in California that seem to come back around every decade or so.
Remember not flushing the toilet? Putting a bucket in the shower? It's time to dust off those tips, as California finds itself in a brutally dry spell. On Friday, following the lowest rainfall year in the state's 163-year history, and with the Sierra snow pack at 17 percent of normal, Gov. Jerry Brown called a drought emergency and asked California residents to cut their water use by 20 percent.
That's not so difficult, experts say. Fixing leaks in household faucets and toilets, and reducing lawn irrigation can get most families to the goal.
"It's pretty easy to save 20 percent. You want to remember that your plants -- even with it being dry outside -- are not needing as much water this time of year because it is cooler than in the summer," said Chris Brown, former executive director of the California Urban Water Conservation Council, a nonprofit group in Sacramento. "The easiest way to save water is to save it outdoors."
In California, more than 50 percent of residential water use occurs outdoors. A typical lawn consumes about 57 inches of rain a year, according to the Association of California Water Agencies. Rain quenches some of that thirst, but it's not enough in most places. Both San Jose and Los Angeles receive 15 inches of rain in a normal year, for example, but last year each received barely 3 inches.
Sprinklers make up the difference. A small lawn of 1,000 square-feet takes about 35,000 gallons of water per year, according to the association. Many homeowners over-water, particularly in the winter, and end up using twice that amount.
Water agencies around the Bay Area offer rebates to replace grass with more drought-tolerant plants. The East Bay Municipal Utility District, for example, pays 50 cents a square foot to people who replace lawns with native, drought-tolerant landscaping, up to $2,500 a yard. The Santa Clara Valley Water District pays $1 per square foot.
"If you aren't really going to use a lawn there are a lot of options, like native grasses and wildflowers, succulents and other plants," said Ruthie Gordon, co-owner of Mazingira Gardening Services, a Berkeley landscaping company that specializes in replacing grass lawns, installing drip irrigation and other water-saving strategies.
"Some people think they must have a lawn. It's a cultural thing," she said. "But you really only need a lawn if you have kids or animals playing on it, or if you throw a lot of parties. If it's just for aesthetics, there are a lot of options that look great."
The average home in California uses 192 gallons of water a day, according to a 2008 study by the state Department of Water Resources and the Urban Water Conservation Council.
Among other tips that experts recommend:
"People need a lot of help,'' said Whitney Gravel, a Burlingame resident who has been looking for water-saving tips following the governor's drought declaration.
"We take our access to clean water for granted," she said. "We need to reorient our thinking to conserve. We need to do it always, but now it's even more critical."
Paul Rogers covers resources and environmental issues. Contact him at 408-920-5045. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulrogerssjmn.
To learn more about rebates, tips and free water audits, see:
State Department of Water Resources: http://saveourH20.org
Santa Clara Valley Water District: www.save20gallons.org or (408) 265-2600
East Bay Municipal Utility District: www.ebmud.com or 1-(866) 403-2683
Contra Costa Water District: www.ccwater.com/conserve or (925) 688-8000
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission: www.sfwater.org or (415) 551-3000