Getting Creative on Saving Water: Tips from Experts and Listeners

Green and gold: Well-watered turf and grass in its natural summertime state in a subdivision in Redding.  (Dan Brekke/KQED)

California's new statewide water restrictions take effect on June 1. Depending on where you live, your water district could be asked to cut urban water use by as much as 36 percent compared with usage in 2013. And with maximum fines now set at $10,000 and the citation process a bit more streamlined, many Californians are going to have to move from merely thinking about conserving water to actually doing it.

Some who already let yellow mellow and take "military showers" may be wondering if it's even possible to further reduce their water use. Still others may balk at residential conservation, given how much water agriculture uses.

Australians Do it Better

But during a discussion on KQED's Forum, Heather Cooley, water program director for the Pacific Institute,  said that households in California "have a lot of potential to be doing better."

Cooley points to Australia, where average household water consumption is 54 gallons per person per day. In California, the average is about 140 gallons per person per day.

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If you take a long-term view of the drought, a lot of the new demands for water are in residential and commercial use,  or what's referred to as "urban" use in water policy vernacular. According to Cooley, urban conservation not only improves the situation for the current drought, but also reduces the state's "need to develop new, more expensive water supplies in the future," she said.

One way that Californians can get closer to Australians in water consumption is to install water-efficient appliances.

Even if you have replaced fixtures as recently as the past decade, new models on the market may be more efficient.

"Look in particular for the WaterSense label," said Cooley. That's a program that's run by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

And as far as cost, it's worth checking with your water district to see if they offer rebates or free showerheads (we've included a list of agencies and rebates below). And even if no rebate is available, Cooley said the investment is still worthwhile:  "A lot of these appliances and fixtures have a little bit of a higher upfront cost, but if you look at the savings over the lifetime, they’re very cost-effective."

If You Change One Thing

A listener during Forum's discussion asked our experts what single appliance they would replace to save on water.

"If you have a clothes washer that is a top-loader, go out and get a front-loader washing machine," said Stephanie Nevins, water conversation supervisor with the Alameda County Water District. "They are incredibly efficient these days. You could be saving 30-plus gallons per load."

Cooley added that "an old toilet, particularly a 6-gallon per flush" one, is definitely worth replacing.

If you're not sure how many gallons per flush your toilet uses, consider its color -- if it's painted a pastel color, there's a good chance it uses a lot of water.

"We still do see some of the pink and green toilets in San Francisco, and those can be flushing 3.5 gallons, 5 gallons, or more," said Julie Ortiz, water conservation manager with San Francisco's Public Utilities Commission. "That’s a considerable amount of water wasted that can be saved."

Chris Dundon of the Contra Costa Water District noted that for many households, the biggest water hog is outside the home. "The lawn is the biggest water-using fixture," Dundon said. "And if we remove that, you’re going to save more than any of them."


Rebates Offered by Local Water Districts

Many water districts offer rebates to replace old appliances or to replace lawns with drought-friendly plants. If you're not sure which Bay Area water district supplies your water, you can use this map to find out. Most districts list their rebate offerings under the "conservation" tab. Here's a list of rebates offered by local water districts:

Alameda County Water District: Rebates offered for water barrels, high-efficiency toilets and urinals, high-efficiency clothes washers, water-efficient landscape and weather-based irrigation

Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency: Rebates offered for rain barrels, high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers; Lawn Be Gone! program offers rebates to customers who replace lawn with water-efficient landscapes

City of Hayward: Rebates for high-efficiency toilets, high-efficiency clothes washers, cooling tower conductivity controllers, water-saving landscaping, lawn conversion

City of Napa: Rebates for turf replacement, rain gardens and rain barrels and cisterns

Contra Costa County Water District: Rebates for residential high-efficiency clothes washers, commercial high-efficiency clothes washers, smart sprinkler timers, commericial irrigation equipment

East Bay Municipal Utility District: Rebates for high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers, lawn replacement, irrigation, graywater system three-way diverter valves. According to the district's website, "high-efficiency showerheads, faucet aerators, and other water-saving devices are available free of charge to eligible EBMUD customers."

Marin Municipal Water District: high-efficiency toilets and urinals, high-efficiency clothes washers, and smart irrigation controllers. $50 rebates (for up to a total of $250) for each of the following: pool covers, hot water recirculating systems, organic mulch, laundry-to-landscape system components, rain barrels

Santa Clara Valley Water District:  Rebates for high-efficiency toilets and clothes washers, turf/pool replacement, irrigation hardware, and graywater laundry-to-landscape systems. Showerheads and faucet aerators are offered free.

Solano County Water District: Rebates for clothes washers, turf replacement

Sonoma County Water Agency: Rebates for high-efficiency toilets and urinals; high-efficiency faucet aerators and showerheads  are offered free.