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Feeling drought fatigue? How to get back to saving water and money

When it comes to saving water, people prefer efficiency to conservation.

“We need to be efficient no matter the weather,” said Amy Talbot, program manager for the Regional Water Authority. “As we’ve seen, weather is variable, but we still need to be efficient and save water. We’re hoping that message really gets across.”

How do you get people excited – again – about saving water? That’s the challenge California water providers face in an almost-normal year.

Money helps. Sacramento and other cities and water districts will offer new incentives to residents to help overcome drought fatigue and prompt them to keep saving.

“A lot of agencies are continuing the rebates they had during the drought,” Talbot said.

Sacramento, for example, replenished its river-friendly landscape conversion fund with more “cash for grass” as well as rebates for smart irrigation controllers up to $400.

As part of its effort to encourage water savings, the City of Sacramento recently revised its dry season water rules, which are in effect March 1 through Oct. 31.

“We want Sacramento to be beautiful,” said Jim Peifer, principal engineer for Sacramento’s Department of Utilities. “We’d also like to make sure (landscapes) are watered efficiently and that plants and trees are taken care of with the water they need. We want to encourage residents to water plants deeply so they get to the point where they can better withstand drought.”

While sprinkler use is restricted to twice a week, other forms of irrigation can be used any day as needed. That includes hand watering, drip irrigation, soaker hoses and verified smart controller systems. Edible plants such as fruit trees and vegetable gardens as well as potted plants may be watered any day. (See all the rules and tips at SacWaterWise.com.) Just don't over water.

“The goal is to get people to think about watering wisely,” said Ellen Martin of Sacramento’s Department of Utilities. “Don’t change what you’re doing just because it’s a drought year or not a drought year, but water wisely all the time. That way, your plants develop deep roots and are more resilient – in dry years or wet years.”

March’s rain brought this season’s total to about 70 percent of average; not low enough to prompt drought declarations, but not great. That followed a soggy 2017, ending five years of bone-dry drought.

“In California, droughts will be part of our lives,” Talbot said. “One year will be extra dry; the next, extra wet. That variability makes us need to be efficient all the time. We can cope better with that change from year to year.”

Getting that idea across to consumers can be tricky. Many residents are burned out on drought messaging.

The Regional Water Authority, the umbrella organization that coordinates 21 Sacramento area water agencies, did extensive research on homeowners’ attitudes toward water saving.

“During the drought, people changed their landscapes, they changed their plants (to low-water alternatives) and we got some good results,” Talbot said. “But what we found in our focus groups, people really love their lawns. A significant portion of our population is not going to change their landscape.

“So, the alternative is to find ways to be more efficient with what you have.”

Efficiency is a mindset, she noted, and a more acceptable approach to prompting people to save.

“The word ‘efficiency’ gets a much more positive response in our research,” Talbot said. “ ‘Conservation’ sounds punitive; you’re making someone do without. But ‘efficiency’ is doing something. It’s proactive; you’re saving.”

Under California’s drought mandates, Sacramento water users responded impressively, cutting overall water use by 30 percent in 2015 compared to 2013. In 2017, water use inched back up 5 percent, compared to 2016.

“We saw a very strong reduction of demand (during the drought),” Talbot said. “Trying to prolong that big a drop is unrealistic. Rebounding (in usage) is the normal cycle after a drought, but we don’t think it will get back to pre-drought levels.”

With large landscapes in many neighborhoods, the average Sacramento household uses 165 gallons of water per person per day, according to city estimates. About two-thirds of that water use is outdoors.

“People still don’t realize that,” Talbot said. “In our surveys, customers still thought they used more water indoors because they see it. They turn on a faucet, take a shower, do laundry. Outdoors, they don’t notice how much water they really use.”

With ads at River Cats’ games and on Facebook, the Regional Water Authority intends to stress a simple message: “Check the Soil and Save.”

“That’s our new motto,” Talbot said. “So far, it’s gotten a really enthusiastic response. We want to encourage customers to be observant. Touch the soil for a second before you water.”

This spring, water customers will be able to get a free moisture meter via the RWA’s BeWaterSmart.info website.

“Even without a meter, you can do the screwdriver test,” Talbot said. “You should do that every time before you turn on the sprinklers.”

Insert a long screwdriver into the soil, right through the lawn or other area to be irrigated. If the tool can be pushed easily 6 inches into the ground, wait another day or two. If the soil is hard, turn on the water.

“It becomes a habit, like recycling,” Talbot noted. “It’s a super simple message; check the soil. We’ll see how it works.”

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