'Water Police' Seek Out Water Waste in San Francisco

Inspector Sue Tensfeldt examines the water meter connected to a Diamond Heights home. Tensfeldt can use her iPad to track the home's hourly water use. (Michelle Dutro/KQED)

Funny thing about a drought. Even without any rain, you turn on the faucet and the water still comes out. And that makes it harder to convince people not to use it.

 At the State capital this week, Gov. Jerry Brown hinted that tighter restrictions on water use could be on the way unless things change, weather-wise.

“When you start rationing 10 percent, 15, 25 percent, and as the drought continues, then that's the pathway, then people will face real burdensome times,” Brown warned.

Like many counties, San Francisco is trying to squeeze out more water savings. And it’s doing a good job. Depending on how you count, San Francisco uses 80-90 gallons of water per person per day.

Compare that with water-hogging Palm Springs, home of lush golf courses and backyard swimming pools. The “oasis in the desert” chugs down 736 gallons a day per person. That’s more than eight times what San Francisco uses.


And yet, San Francisco is still trying to squeeze out more savings. I spent some time with a pair of women who are like the Sherlock Holmes of water conservation -- Sue Tensfeldt and Julie Ortiz from the San Francisco Public Utilities Department.

We hopped in a city car and headed toward Diamond Heights, where the pair was hot on the trail of a reported water waster.

We arrived at a single-family home with no front lawn and only a little strip of reed grass. But next to it, a little patch of the driveway is wet -- a possible sign of overwatering.

 Sue Tensfeldt talks to a nanny who answers the door and is a bit stumped.

“There isn't any irrigation on that little patch of landscape where we see water coming from, so it could indicate that there's some other issue going on,” Tensfeldt says. “As the water experts, we're going to try to figure out the problem.”

She pops off a utility cover on a sidewalk to reveal a water meter below. To her chagrin, the meter isn't moving. That means the water pipe probably isn't leaking.

“Our meters can pick up on very small amounts of water passing through, things as little as a dripping faucet, a dripping showerhead or shower valve, or even a house pipe.”

Conclusion? It's probably a sewer problem -- a problem they can't fix by themselves.

Ortiz admits that in this conservation-conscious city, she’s almost preaching to the choir.

“But there's always room to save more,” Ortiz insists. “And so that's part of the hard job that Sue and I do. We go out and look for the opportunities to find places and ways people can still save water.”

Their city car is practically a hardware store on wheels. Their trunk is full of garden-hose spray nozzles, low-flow shower heads, standard toilet repair parts and dye tabs to check for toilet leaks. And tons of water conservation literature.

It's laudable, of course, that cities like San Francisco are trying to plug every little leak. But the truth is, the size of California's water problem is going to require more sacrifice and perhaps more punishment.

And Peter Gleick, a water scientist and co-founder of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, even endorses “water shaming.”

“I would like to see a reality in which, if you have a green lawn, your neighbors look at you askance,” says Gleick. “And that's socially unacceptable. In the 21st century, green lawns should go the way of smoking on airplanes.”