Water experts say landscaping accounts for half of urban water use and lawns are the biggest culprit. Some homeowners are switching to drought tolerant landscaping to save water and money. (Nina Sparling/KQED)
But water conservation at home extends far beyond a low-flow toilet. Some upgrades require nothing more than switching out a showerhead or keeping water cold in the fridge — others involve a little more legwork. Water conservationists point to three big ways that homeowners can cut back.
Using water twice
Normally, the leftover water from a load of laundry, a bath or a shower runs down the drain and into the sewer system. But it doesn’t have to. In California, that water — the official name for it is gray water, or sometimes "greywater" — is perfect for watering most gardens. On average, a gray water system can save a household over 14,000 gallons of water a year, by simply redirecting that lightly used water into a yard.
"Gray water can offer you this source to [water] your fruit trees or berries or plants that need more irrigation water without using fresh water from the tap," says Laura Allen of Greywater Action, an advocacy group in California.
The most common type of gray water system is a "laundry to landscape" setup, where the water from a load of laundry flows down a set of pipes into a yard or garden. Depending on specifics like the location of the washing machine in a home, homeowners can install a gray water system on their own. The most straightforward projects don’t require a permit and can cost just a few hundred dollars. Other types of systems are more involved and require permits and professional installation.
But the most cost-efficient way to start using gray water immediately? Put a bucket in the shower while you’re waiting for the water to heat up. Then, use it to flush the toilet or water plants. Gray water should never be stored for more than 24 hours, and laundry-to-landscape systems do require a switch to eco-friendly detergent.
So has outdoor irrigation. But we don't always jump to make fixes and upgrades that can save money — and water in the long run — says Justin Burks of Valley Water in Santa Clara County.
"A new smartphone comes out [and] a lot of us will go out and get that new version," Burks says. "But many of us live with the same irrigation equipment from 20 or 40 years ago."
Newer irrigation systems come with smart controllers that respond to the weather and measure moisture content in the soil, so the landscape only gets watered when it really needs it. Drip irrigation and high-efficiency sprinklers can also have a significant impact.
Wildlife and insects thrive in gardens with California native plants, too, says Julie Saare-Edmonds, an environmental scientist with the California Department of Water Resources. She says she's seen a growing interest in native plant gardens — especially in drought years.
The best native plants vary significantly depending on location. The California Native Plant Society maintains a vast database, called Calscape, of regionally appropriate native plants. Gardners can decide whether they want to see plants that attract butterflies, plants with extremely low water needs, as well as low-maintenance options. And the California Department of Water Resources has a comprehensive guide for how to make the transition.
And if you want to go further, each Bay Area county has a master gardener program. Seasoned gardeners are available to answer questions about designing native plant and drought-friendly gardens. Many also have demonstration gardens where newcomers can learn about their options, and find some inspiration.
How to pay for it
Many water agencies in the Bay Area will help you cover the costs of using less water at home. Most often, this comes in the form of a rebate for projects like gray water installation, a smart flow meter, or a switch to a drought-friendly garden.
Renters can take advantage of some of these programs, too, by switching in a free, water-efficient showerhead (that you can swap out when you leave) or tipping your landlord off to how they can replace an old toilet at no cost.
We're highlighting a few programs offered by local water agencies, but check your provider for even more deals and specifics.