Home & Garden

7 suggestions for drought behavior

The warm afternoon sun filters through the trees on C and 20th streets in Sacramento in 2014.
The warm afternoon sun filters through the trees on C and 20th streets in Sacramento in 2014. Sacramento Bee File

Can a plant get a drink around here?

Facing another parched year, Californians are feeling a serious squeeze. We’re headed into the fourth consecutive spring and summer of devastating drought.

In the Greater Sacramento area, we cut back our water use 19 percent in 2014, compared with 2013. Now we’re being asked to save even more.

“January was the driest on historical record, drier than last year – which was a record, too,” noted Amy Talbot, Regional Water Authority’s Water Efficiency Program manager. “This drought is definitely worse than the 1990s.”

We’re neck-and-neck with the epic dry spell of 1976-77, when precipitation was a scant 15 percent of normal. Back then, residents put bricks in toilets and let lawns go brown as that drought sprouted the beginnings of our ongoing water-saving awareness.

There’s still room for improvement – which is crucial, say state and local water officials. Otherwise, cities and counties may ban all outdoor irrigation, a last-ditch conservation effort. Currently, state water officials plan to restrict outdoor watering to only two days per week.

“It’s a balance; how much do we need to do right now vs. what it will take to recoup (landscape losses) after the drought,” Talbot said. “At two days a week, you can still keep things alive in your garden, but it’s time to make some choices.”

During warmer months, the average Sacramento-area household uses 380 gallons a day, according to RWA, the umbrella organization for more than two local dozen water providers. Typically, 65 percent – close to 250 gallons – goes to outdoor landscaping. That leaves 130 gallons for daily indoor use.

For most households, a further 20 percent reduction represents 75 gallons a day. But you don’t have to let your garden die or go without showers to make up that amount – and more. Here are seven things you can do about the drought now.

1. Save your trees

“Even at the state level, (officials) are concerned about keeping trees alive, even while letting the rest of the landscape go,” said RWA’s Talbot. “Trees are the highest value, multiple-benefit plants in your landscape. Trees do a lot more than soak up water. They improve air quality, they provide shade, they create habitat (for wildlife) – and they’re beautiful.”

As a “city of trees,” Sacramento has put a priority on protecting its urban forest from drought. Most trees need slow, deep, infrequent watering at the dripline – the furthest reach of its branches – twice a month (or weekly for young trees). When watering or installing drip irrigation, remember that feeder roots tend to be in the top 18 to 24 inches of soil and can extend several feet beyond the dripline. That whole root zone needs some water.

Native trees take a beating during ultra-dry times, too. In 1975-76, Sierra forests lost an estimated 7.5 million trees due to drought consequences. That deadwood fueled catastrophic wildfires.

Chuck Ingels, Sacramento County’s farm and horticulture adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension, offers this tree-saving advice:

▪ Check the soil regularly at the tree dripline (or near the trunk of newly planted trees). Use a trowel or soil probe and dig down 6 to 8 inches. If the soil looks dry and crumbly, it’s time to water. If it feels moist and holds together when compacted, wait.

▪ Apply water very slowly, so soil can absorb it. Use a soaker hose or drip irrigation with multiple emitters or bubblers. If using a soaker hose, circle the tree 1 foot beyond the dripline.

▪ Mulch around trees to keep that moisture around a little longer. Be careful not to mound mulch around the trunk; give it a little room to breathe.

2. Be a smarter consumer

Water saving starts with you. How much do you use?

Get to know your water bill, say the experts. That may not be as easy it sounds. Many water providers still bill in units of 100 cubic feet (748 gallons) or fractions of acre-feet. One acre-foot equals 326,000 gallons.

“We’re encouraging people to look at their water bill and try to understand how much they’re actually using,” Talbot said. “It may be more than they think.”

Some districts now offer online videos on deciphering water bills, including Sacramento Suburban Water District, city of Sacramento, city of Davis and Golden State Water Company.

Saving becomes less abstract when you can track water usage from month to month and year to year. Local water districts also are phasing in consumer-friendly bills that use gallons instead of units or acre-feet.

▪ Speaking of bills, become familiar with your water provider and the services it offers. During drought, it’s a lot more than just supplying water. State and local funds are earmarked for public outreach and drought-relief programs. From rebates to irrigation retrofits, your water provider can become your drought buddy.

▪ Know your habits, too. On average, indoor water use goes down the toilet (26 percent) or for clothes washing (22 percent), showers (17 percent) and faucet use (16 percent). Dishwashers account for only 1 percent of use.

3. Stop leaks

Those little drips or silent water wasters can add up to hundreds of gallons – fast. The RWA estimates that leaks account for 14 percent of all residential indoor water use. That’s 546 gallons a month in a typical Sacramento household.

▪ Use your water meter as a tool to spot leaks. “If you have a sleepless night and you know everything in the house is off, go out and look at the meter,” Talbot said. “If the little dial is still moving, there’s a leak.”

▪ Get a free Water-Wise House Call. This service is offered by most local water providers. A trained technician will visit your home by appointment and pinpoint problems.

4. Check out rebates

A little financial incentive can help ease water-saving efforts, especially if you’re shopping for a new toilet or clothes washer.

Local water providers have replenished their rebate programs with new grants and funding. That means more money for consumers.

Programs and rebate amounts vary by water district. For example, the California-American Water Company offers rebates for high-efficiency clothes washers (up to $200), dishwashers ($125) and toilets (up to $125) as well as retrofit rebates for outdoor irrigation including rain sensors, weather-based controllers and rotor nozzles plus “cash-for-grass” turf replacement.

The city of Sacramento offers its popular River-Friendly Landscape Conversion program, which pays residents to take out turf in favor of more water-wise landscaping. For a full list of rebate programs, see www.bewatersmart.info.

The key to rebates? Get them early. That money is limited and, judging by past years, will run out very quickly.

▪ First, contact your water provider and ask what’s available. Some programs (such as cash for grass) require a home visit or other step, such as submitting a landscape plan and plant list before purchase.

▪ Confirm that your home and/or appliances and fixtures are eligible before you buy replacements. Make sure your new fixtures and appliances are in compliance with the rebate program, too.

▪ Keep your receipts. Submit them along with other required documentation to your water provider for reimbursement.

5. Let technology help

Water-saving technology is making it easier to conserve. Swap water-wasting old appliances and fixtures for high-efficiency models.

▪ How much can you save? Toilets manufactured before 1992 use 3.5 to 7 gallons per flush. Modern high-efficiency toilets, which use 1.28 gallons or less per flush, are much better at flushing than earlier water-saving models. By replacing 3.5 gallons-per-flush models with high-efficiency models, a typical family can save about 17,000 gallons a year.

▪ Clothes washing is the second highest water use inside your home. The average family does more than 300 loads a year. If their washer is more than 10 years old, they likely used more than 12,000 gallons. A high-efficiency washer will use 35 percent less water – about 4,000 gallons – as well as using 20 percent less electricity.

▪ Look for the WaterSense label. This independent program certifies products that meet performance as well as water-saving expectations; these toilets really do flush on the first try.

▪ “Smart” irrigation technology has made big improvements in ease of programming as well as adaptability and water saving. Consider a weather-based controller that turns the sprinklers off when it rains and monitors soil moisture. (Some models even work with your smartphone.)

▪ Some new technology looks old school but makes worthwhile savings. Even better, these advances can be incorporated into existing fixtures. For example, swap out old sprinkler heads for rotor nozzle sprinkler heads that waste less water by delivering their spray in larger droplets.

6. Make saving a habit

Conservation is a mindset, said RWA’s Talbot. It goes hand in hand with efficiency.

“You need both,” she said. “Don’t rely just on one or the other. Neither by itself will cut it.”

By being more water-wise in our daily lives, we can save a little more water in a lot of different ways. Drop by drop, it adds up to gallons and gallons. Some examples:

▪ Get a shower bucket. Collect water as you’re waiting for the shower to warm up. Use it to water plants outdoors.

▪ Take a shorter shower. Put a five-minute timer (available from several local water providers) in the shower to remind you to pick up your pace.

▪ Adjust sprinklers to avoid overspray onto sidewalks and driveways. Irrigate in the early morning when there’s less evaporation. “Do just those two things and you can save about 30 percent on watering your lawn,” Talbot said.

▪ Consider a “gray-water system” that recycles wastewater from the clothes washer for landscape use.

▪ Save what rainwater that does fall with rain barrels that collect water from your roof for use in your landscape.

▪ If you have a pool, make sure it’s covered; that cuts down dramatically on evaporation loss.

7. Plan for a long, dry haul ahead

Consider retooling your landscape – including lawn removal.

“After four years of drought, you’ve got to start thinking this may be the new normal,” Talbot said. “How are we going to adapt?”

Several local groups spotlight water-wise alternatives to traditional landscapes with tours and planting guides. Find examples at www.ecolandscape.org and www.rwa.watersavingplants.com.

If the drought continues much longer, the days of lush lawns may be gone – at least in California.

Talbot cites Folsom water-efficiency expert Don Smith. “Don always says, ‘If the only time you get on your grass is to mow it, you don’t need it,’” Talbot said. “That’s the most practical advice I’ve heard on the lawn issue. It’s a good location to try something else.”

Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.

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