In this state, more than 50 percent of residential water use occurs outdoors. A typical lawn consumes about 57 inches of water 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, for example, receive 15 inches of rain in a normal year, but last year each got 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 overwater, particularly in winter, and end up using twice that amount. We will take a closer look at outdoor water conservation measures in a minute.
But we also must acknowledge that, inside our homes, small changes can add up to huge water savings. Efforts indoors and out can meet, or exceed, the 20 percent voluntary cut in water consumption Gov. Jerry Brown called for last month.
In the bathroom, for example, taking a 5-minute shower instead of a 10-minute shower saves 12.5 gallons with a low-flow shower head, or 25 gallons with a standard 5-gallon-per-minute shower head.
Fixing worn washers in a faucet that has a slow, steady drip saves 350 gallons per month, or 2,000 gallons a month when the drip has become a small stream. Putting a new flapper in a leaking toilet can save 7,000 gallons a month. (To test for leaks, add food coloring to the tank; ten minutes later if you see color in the bowl, you have a leak.)
Replacing a pre-1990 toilet, which can use 5 gallons per flush, with a newer high-efficiency model can save 38 gallons a day per toilet. Most Bay Area water districts offer rebates of $50 to $250 per toilet.
In the kitchen, soaking pots and pans, instead of letting the water run while scraping them, adds significant water savings.
Replacing a standard clothes washer with a high-efficiency model saves up to 16 gallons a load. A water-efficient dishwasher saves up to 8 gallons a load. Rebates are available for water-saving appliances from most Bay Area water agencies.
Most also offer free water-audit inspections. An expert will come to your house to check for leaks and give tips on how to conserve water and lower your bill.
Outdoors, using a broom to clean driveways, sidewalks and patios instead of a hose saves 8 to 18 gallons a minute.
There are many other ways to cut outdoor water usage without making much of a sacrifice.
According to the UC Center for Landscape & Urban Horticulture, water savings of 10 percent or more can be obtained by regularly checking for and fixing problems with our irrigation systems. That involves walking through the yard or garden while sprinklers are running to identify and repair broken, clogged, sunken or misdirected spray heads and drip lines. It also means moving heads that are blocked by shrubs, trees or structures.
Assessing the look and condition of plantings also can help. Although many trees outlive humans, most landscape plants have a more limited lifespan. Once a shrub becomes overgrown, woody or just tired-looking, dealing with a drought could offer the perfect opportunity to consider new options and replace the most thirsty plants.
If you use drought-resistant native California varieties or Mediterranean species to replace other plants, not only will you significantly reduce water usage, the new plants also will support native birds, bees and other insects that help keep the environment healthy. A yard filled with beneficial insects supports a thriving ecosystem that requires few to no fertilizers, pesticides or other chemicals.
But if replacing a lot of your existing landscape isn't an option right now, changes can be made gradually. When established, most of our common trees, vines, shrubs and ornamental ground covers will survive with 20 to 40 percent less water than we typically give them.
According to some experts, overwatering wastes as much as 50 percent of our outdoor usage -- through evaporation, wind and runoff from inefficient irrigation methods and systems. The runoff washes into watersheds taking harmful fertilizers and chemicals with it.
"One of the most important things we can do is to water at the right time -- between 2 and 6 a.m.," says Marty Grimes, program administrator with the Santa Clara Valley Water District. "Doing so will significantly reduce evaporation that takes place (if) watering during the day, and will help reduce fungus and disease that occur when water repeatedly sits on your plants or lawn overnight."
If you are thinking of replacing all, or a portion, of your turf lawn, often rebates are available to help you. 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, up to $2,000 in most places; rebates in Palo Alto and Morgan Hill are higher. In some water districts, rebates are available for replacing irrigation equipment and controllers. In most areas, an inspection is required before the work is done to qualify for a rebate; check prior to making a change.
Some water districts offer incentives for installing new "greywater" systems that divert used laundry, shower, bathtub and bathroom sink water to parched landscapes. "Greywater systems are super low-tech," says Sherry Lee Bryan, program director of ecology action at 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."
A Santa Clara Valley Water District program that kicked off Jan. 1 provides a $100 rebate for homeowners who install a "laundry to landscape" greywater system, where runoff water from the above locations is diverted to the homeowner's lawn or garden. This water should not be used in those vegetable gardens with root crops or where the crops to be harvested touch the ground. Those using greywater systems are advised to use only all-natural, biodegradable soaps.
"Laundry-to-landscape systems don't require a permit, and if you are really handy you can do it yourself," says Jerry De La Piedra, a water conservation program manager at the Santa Clara Valley Water District.
For those who want to keep an existing turf lawn, several water-saving measures can help. Though all plants, including drought-tolerant natives, need regular water from the time they are planted until they become established (usually for one or two years), once woody landscape plants have deep root systems, they survive with limited summer irrigation.
Established lawns and landscapes don't require daily irrigation. Most tall fescue lawns perform well when watered only twice a week. Bermuda grass and warm-season lawns can be irrigated even less frequently. Established trees, shrubs and ground covers do well when watered once every 10 to 14 days.
Once you have decided which plants will stay and which will go, add a layer of mulch (3-4 inches) around trees and shrubs you're keeping. Mulch not only helps conserve irrigation water but helps break up and feed the soil while reducing weed growth. But don't practice carpet mulching; leave some bare spots for the many native bees that nest in the ground.
Staff writers Paul Rogers and Dana Hull contributed to this report. Rebecca Jepsen is a Santa Clara County Master Gardener. If you have questions, call the Master Gardener hotline in San Jose at 408-282-3105 from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
REBATES AND MORE
Learn more about rebates, conservation tips and free water audits at:
Contra Costa Water District:
East Bay Municipal Utility District:
San Francisco Public Utilities Commission:
Santa Clara Valley Water District:
State Department of Water Resources: