OAKLAND -- While the average single-family home in the East Bay Municipal Utility District used 135 gallons of water per person per day last year, Elizabeth Dougherty got by with just 30 gallons. The lowest she's hit: 20 gallons a day.
In the ongoing drought, conservation-minded Dougherty epitomizes the "low-H20" lifestyle and ranks among the most water-thrifty customers in the area. And if some of her strategies are not for everyone -- she wears her clothes at least three times before washing them -- others may have wider appeal in a year when everyone is being urged to conserve.
She collects rainwater from the roof of the 1,250-square-foot North Oakland home she shares with a housemate; the three large rain cisterns collectively hold more than 1,100 gallons, which she will use to grow vegetables this spring and summer. Her garden is filled with succulents and drought-tolerant plants. She has a low-flow toilet and "laundry-to-landscape" system to divert "graywater" from the washing machine to outdoor trees. She keeps a five-gallon bucket on hand to collect water from the shower.
"I don't even call it water anymore," said Dougherty, who has been known to get into arguments with friends after dinner parties if they leave the tap water running while washing dishes. "It's a river. This is a river flowing out of your tap."
Dougherty, 56, has a Ph.D. in ethnography from the University of Pennsylvania and has been an advocate for sustainable living for decades. She spent two years working as a program manager for "Flex Your Power," California's statewide energy-efficiency marketing and outreach campaign. She then taught permaculture, which draws from organic farming and sustainable development, in rural Peru.
In early 2009, she founded Wholly H20, a well-known water conservation, reuse and policy center in San Francisco, and serves as the organization's executive director. She splits her time between Oakland and Groveland, a historic community west of Yosemite National Park, and is working on a documentary about the Tuolumne watershed. The Tuolumne River begins in the High Sierra from the snowpacks of Mount Dana and Mount Lyell, the tallest peak in Yosemite.
The time Dougherty spends at the headwaters of rivers whose ecosystems are increasingly threatened by wildfires such as the Rim Fire and the drought has made her a fierce believer in the need for public education. She thinks people will be more inspired to conserve and reuse water if they fully understand their water's journey to their tap.
Dougherty often starts her public talks and presentations with a simple question: Where does your water come from? Many people have no idea, or they name a reservoir.
"People in San Francisco say their water comes from Hetch Hetchy," she said. "It comes from the Tuolumne River, which flows into Hetch Hetchy. Water conservation starts with public education."
In her blog posts, Dougherty warns that California must make water conservation and reuse standard practice, not just a fad when drought conditions hit the headlines or become severe.
"Conservation is so simple, it's crazy," she wrote in one post. "Put a bucket in your shower to catch heat-up water and dump it in your garden or flush your toilet with it. Put a low-flow aerator on your kitchen sink and reduce in an instant. Get that low-flow toilet you've been wanting. Call your water agency and ask for rebates on these or take advantage of existing rebates and incentives."
Abby Figueroa, a spokeswoman for EBMUD, says that Dougherty exceeds the most water efficient households by a long shot.
"Twenty gallons! That's about as low as it gets," Figueroa said. "A water-efficient customer should shoot for about 50 gallons of indoor use per person per day."
Dougherty passes out stickers that say "On Tap Tuolumne River" in San Francisco, and she is making stickers that say "On Tap Mokelumne River" to raise awareness among customers of EBMUD.
Toilets account for roughly 20 percent of average indoor water use. Many older models use 3.5 gallons to as much as 7 gallons per flush, or gpf. With the average person flushing at least five times a day, that quickly adds up. A 1.6 gpf toilet, which became the industry standard in the 1990s, uses about 2,900 gallons a year. Switching to a 1.28 gpf "high efficiency toilet" cuts that to 2,300 gallons a year. Dougherty's low-flush toilet uses just 0.8 gpf, and she doesn't flush it every time (a good motto: If it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down).
When it comes to appliances such as the clothes washer, a front-loading washer is more water efficient than a top-loading one. But Dougherty takes it one step further: She wears most clothes at least three times before washing them, and does laundry about once every 10 days.
Experts in water conservation say one reason Americans don't conserve water is because of pricing.
"We have inexpensive water in the United States," said David Sunding, an economist and co-director of the Berkeley Water Center at the University of California. "There's not a technical barrier to getting down to lower levels of consumption. If we incentivized conservation, we'd get more of it."
When Gov. Jerry Brown in January officially declared that California was in a drought, Dougherty was in high demand.
"My phone rang nonstop," she said. "Everyone was like -- rainwater, graywater, can you help us? Then the phone calls receded. The hysteria has lessened, even though we're still in a drought."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
1. She uses a 5-gallon bucket to collect water in the shower.
2. She has a low-flow toilet.
3. She collects rainwater in a series of large cisterns.
4. She has a "laundry-to-landscape" graywater system.
5. She has aerators on her faucets to reduce flow.
6. She wears her clothes about three times before washing them.
7. Her garden is filled with succulents and drought- tolerant plants.
Dougherty is the founder and executive director of Wholly H20, a well-known water conservation, reuse and policy center in San Francisco. For more information, go to http://whollyh2o.org.