At the depth of California’s four-year drought, water-use experts found plenty of stark images to illustrate the urgent need to conserve. They pointed to half-empty Folsom Lake or once-floating boat docks aground on caked clay. Fallow fields and dying orchards echoed the dire message: Save water or perish.
Motivated by such examples, many residents got the message and turned off their taps. Homeowners let their lawns die and retooled their irrigation. They took shorter showers and converted bathrooms with low-flow toilets.
Then, it started to rain, and all those drought-driven lessons seemed to wash away.
After months of conserving 25 percent or more on water use, Sacramento-area consumers pulled back by only 11 percent – less than half the target savings – in January compared with that same month in 2013, the baseline year used for state conservation comparisons.
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“It’s definitely difficult to tell people to conserve when they see Folsom Lake where it is now,” said Amy Talbot, water efficiency program manager for the Regional Water Authority, the umbrella organization for Sacramento area water providers. “But we still have a statewide mandate to conserve and we need to hit our targets.”
Experts say some Californians may believe the drought is finally over. But even if this winter’s rainfall totals look good so far, the state’s water supply still hasn’t returned to adequate levels. January was wet, with more than 5 inches of rain, but February has been almost bone dry. The total in Sacramento this month is 0.85 inches, a quarter of February’s typical rainfall.
The goal for most water officials and state and local leaders will be motivating Californians to keep saving water – rain or no rain.
“There may be some drought fatigue,” Talbot said. “We’re asking, ‘What have people done (to save water)? More importantly, what are they still willing to do?’ ”
“Just as it takes several years to enter a drought, it also typically takes several years to ease out of a drought.”
Introduced in 2014 and modified three times, statewide drought emergency measures were recently extended through October.
“We were already in a drought, but very little happened before the emergency regulations,” said Bob Hitchner of Nexus eWater, which specializes in recycling home water and energy. “When people don’t feel it’s an emergency, how do you keep them focused?”
Cutbacks can go only so far, Hitchner noted. Real change – and major savings – comes from rethinking how water is used. Toilets, for example, could be filled with recycled water instead of drinking water. Laundry water could be recycled for landscape use. But such innovations often need changes in building codes and other laws.
“What we asked everybody in California to do is just cut back,” he said. “Please do without. Let your lawn go brown. That’s savings, but not so much conservation. Conservation really is to do what you want to do, but with less.”
Mary Lyman, who lives in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood, said she’s making a list of more ways she can cut back on water use.
“I’m looking into a recirculating pump for instant hot water to faucets,” she said. “The back lawn is coming out in favor of a bigger veggie garden – on a drip system, of course – and Home Depot sells a 55-gallon rain barrel with a brass spigot for $90 that I really want. As far as I know, it’s still legal in California to collect rainwater.”
Marian Wong, who lives in the same neighborhood, removed all her lawn in 2009 in favor of an Asian-themed, water-wise garden planted with small trees and shrubs. She often gets into discussions with neighbors over the pros and cons of a lawnless landscape.
“People all ask about it,” she said, “but either the husband or wife doesn’t like the idea of taking out the lawn.
“With the rain, people are thinking, ‘I don’t have to do that!’ ” Wong added. “But it’s a lot less work to take care of a non-lawn yard. And planting drought-tolerant plants when there’s some rain lets them put down deep roots.”
Water-wise landscape expert Cheryl Buckwalter, president of EcoLandscape, teaches water-efficient “greener gardening” to homeowners as well as landscape professionals. Her two classes quickly filled up this winter, even as the rain began falling.
“The demographics are interesting,” she said of her students. “I have very few millennials. My classes are almost all seniors, age 50 and up. They’re active gardeners and really into it.”
At Green Acres Nursery and Supply’s four locations, customers say they’re still interested in low-water landscapes and irrigation retrofits, said spokeswoman Tami Kint. The nursery’s best-selling plants are all drought-tolerant mainstays such as manzanita and lavender.
“Water conservation will be a big part of our lives this year, as it was last year,” Kint said. “We’ve noticed that the majority of our customers are really interested in making lasting changes to avoid having to replace their landscape investments the next time we roll into the cycle of low water.”
January’s rain did take customers’ minds off more-efficient drip-irrigation systems, but Kint expects interest to perk back up as weather warms and landscapes dry out.
“There are a lot of savvy gardeners out there who know the retrofits make sense for plant health – and for their water bills,” she said.
In the greater Sacramento area, landscape irrigation accounts for about two-thirds of household water use. Facing mandatory restrictions, many residents just shut off their sprinklers and let lawns, trees and and other plants die.
“People were pretty down,” Buckwalter said. “They were depressed about the brown lawn; how it looked, how it felt. They didn’t want to lose their trees. What we’re seeing more and more are people taking out the lawn and being more empowered. They get to make some choices about what they have in their landscape and make it something they enjoy.”
However, change is gradual.
“Compared to a couple of years ago, the number of low-water landscape conversions in our area has at least doubled,” Buckwalter said, “but it’s still under 10 percent.”
Roseville landscape and garden designer Kate Bowers said she’s seen a shift in customer attitudes toward drought-tolerant landscapes, with many motivated by the promise of water-wise gardens using a widening variety of drought-tolerant plants.
“All my requests are for drought-tolerant landscapes,” she said. “This is change that will stick for a while. Homeowners are realizing low-water gardens have a double benefit; they’re low maintenance, too.”
Talbot said she hoped homeowners became more aware of their own water use.
“What we learned during the last year is that our landscapes can get by with less water,” Talbot said. “A lot of people realized they were probably overwatering their lawns. We hope those lessons stuck.”
After past major droughts, California water use did go up again, she said.
“Typically, there is a rebound after drought, but it doesn’t get back to the same level,” Talbot said. “Some of the savings stick.”
That’s especially true if homeowners converted landscapes to low-water plants or switched out old appliances and fixtures for new high-efficiency models.
As a carrot, state and local agencies are still offering rebates for low-flow toilets, high-efficiency washing machines and landscape conversions, Talbot said. For example, Sacramento area residents can receive up to $4 per square foot for lawn replacement.
“We thought all the money would be gone by now, but there still are some funds available,” she said.
Gerri Shapiro, another resident in Sacramento’s Pocket neighborhood, said the little savings added up for her. But to make a real difference, the lawn had to go.
“One of our first strategies was to cut down on toilet flushing by not flushing every time we used the toilet, as well as taking shorter showers and turning off the water when washing dishes or brushing our teeth,” Shapiro said. “However, our bigger project involved redoing the landscaping around our house, which was completely surrounded by grass and huge trees that were far too large and densely planted for the property.
“After removing the big trees, we planted three new ones of appropriate size while removing the lawn and opting for a new design featuring a variety of drought-tolerant plants,” she said. “Each planting has its own drip line so there is no overspray or wasted water.”
The result? Shapiro cut her home’s water use to 130 gallons a day in October, less than half the estimated 276-gallon daily use of similar Sacramento homes.
Experts are hopeful more homeowners will follow that example.
“People finally realize that we’ll always have cycles of drought,” Bowers said. “This one made a huge impression.”