Wealthy Woodside Is Among State's Top Water Wasters

The entrance to a private drive in Woodside. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

The rural town of Woodside combines the leafy luxury of Marin County with the remoteness of Mendocino. Woodside is nestled in the  heart of Silicon Valley, but its rustic setting off scenic Highway 280 south of San Francisco is anything but high tech.

Woodside has a swanky Zip code. And it has something in common with other posh cities like Beverly Hills and Malibu: Woodside is among California’s top water wasters.

Judy Sieber owns a local home and garden store. She says many of her customers live on beautiful pieces of property and can afford luxurious gardens to match. But, she notes, those plants require a lot of water.

At her home and garden store in Woodside, Judy Sieber is pushing water efficient plants like succulents, and even artificial silk flowers.
At her home and garden store in Woodside, Judy Sieber is pushing water efficient plants like succulents, and even artificial silk flowers. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

“It’s going to be very interesting to see what they do, how they react" to calls for conservation, Sieber says. "If they think, ‘I don’t care, fine me. Whatever,’ ” Sieber says. “And I have friends who say, ‘I think I’m going to let the front [yard] die, but not the back. I’m not giving up the back!’ People want to save face.”

Numbers from the State Water Board reveal that Woodside residents need to save more than face. They need to save water by cutting their use by 35 percent. Otherwise, their water district could face fines of up to $10,000 a day.

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One of Woodside’s main gathering places is a local food joint named Buck's – an unassuming, quirky restaurant decorated with random items like French horns, an alligator (or is it a crocodile?) riding a little red wagon and cowboy-hat lampshades.

Buck's owner, Jamis MacNiven, says, "There's a lot of craziness around the water issue" in Woodside. He notes that "the real issue is economic -- we don’t value water enough as a commodity."

“We have the cheapest water in the world, and as long as that’s the case, we have problems,” he says. “I mean, if we’re watering giant cemeteries of dead people, as opposed to drinking the water, maybe our values need to be readjusted.”

MacNiven defends his fellow Woodsiders from charges they're water hogs.

“People don’t have giant lawns generally here. It’s not Beverly Hills,” he says. In other words, water waste is a problem, but not here in Woodside.

At a table in the corner, old-timer Joe Greenback (yes, that's his real name and he's wearing a green polo shirt) admits he does have a big lawn.

“I don't know whether we're gonna have to let it go brown or not,” he says. “We haven't yet, but we're thinking in those terms how we can conserve or cut back. We've got a large investment in landscaping that I don't want to lose. It’d have to get a lot more serious than it is now.”

Some in Woodside acknowledge the drought is serious -- now. Sieber stopped watering the boxwood balls  lining her driveway. When they died, she used green spray paint to liven them up.

“I think everybody needs to do their part,” Sieber says. “My motto is: Just because you can afford to have a rolling golf course in your backyard doesn’t mean you should. I'm probably offending people I know," she says, with a roar of laughter.

Debbie Mendelson (L) and her son Jason have become the lead proponents of water conservation in Woodside, a town that so far isn't doing its part to save water.
Debbie Mendelson (L) and her son Jason have become the lead proponents of water conservation in Woodside, a town that so far isn't doing its part to save water. (Scott Shafer/KQED)

She adds: "It’s a different time.”

Woodside does have a self-appointed water watchdog: Debbie Mendelson.

Last July, Mendelson marched down to the Town Council armed with a three-ring notebook full of water waste data. She had a strong message for the council -- adopt a water conservation plan.

“I don't know what the people at the high end are doing, but they have to also contribute to making the difference,” Mendelson says. “We all need water. No one is any more special than anyone else in needing water to survive.”

Living next to the Menlo Country Club and golf course sends Mendelson fuming every time she sees them watering their plush green fairways in the middle of the day with potable water, she says.

Water seems to be a family obsession. Her son, Jason Mendelson, chairs the town's Sustainability and Conservation Committee.

“We're gonna be in real trouble, so this is kind of the last chance,” he says. “I think it's that those of us who are, maybe, of means, to take a leadership role in making the changes both culturally and practically so that we can have some water in the future.”

It’s been more than eight months since the Mendelsons urged the town to adopt a water conservation plan.

Woodside is still thinking about it.

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