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Three Big Ways to Save Water at Home

Despite a growing population, urban Californians are using far less water than in decades past. That’s in some measure thanks to straightforward changes people have made at home — like installing new toilets. The humble appliance uses more water than any other, but over the years, they’ve dropped from using as many as 8 gallons per flush to as little as 0.8 gallons per flush.

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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

Amelia Terkel uses shower water on her trees through a homemade greywater system. (Courtesy Amir Terkel)

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 greywater — is perfect for watering most gardens. On average, a greywater system can save a household over 14,000 gallons of water in a year, by simply redirecting that lightly used water into a yard.

“Graywater 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 greywater system is a “Laundry to Landscape” set-up, 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 greywater 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, require permits, and professional installation.

But the most cost-efficient way to start using greywater 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. Greywater should never be stored for more than 24 hours, and laundry-to-landscape systems do require a switch to eco-friendly detergent.

Upgrade Equipment

Household appliance leaks waste more water than many people know. For example, a toilet leak can waste about a gallon of water per hour. (iStock/banusevim)

Toilets aren’t the only fixtures that have evolved in the past several decades. One analysis found that residential water use nationwide dropped by 22% between 1999 and 2016 — and that’s by and large because appliances have gotten more water-efficient.

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.

Other small fixes to cut back on water use: check your toilet for leaks (a simple dye test kit does the trick). An estimated 20% of all toilets leak, and in some cases, a leak can waste a gallon of water every hour. Another quick fix is to install a faucet aerator, which limits the flow of water.

Turfs’ Up

Californians living in more urban environments use a lot of water on lawns. Outdoor watering accounts for half of all urban water use, so its an easy place to save. Some people are planting drought tolerant gardens instead. (Marcutti/KQED)

About half of all the water used in urban California goes to one place: landscaping. Oftentimes, that means watering a wide, flat, lawn that requires consistent, and heavy, water use. Switching out the lawn for a garden featuring California native plants can save significant amounts of water, and bring a host of other benefits.

A nine-year study conducted by the city of Santa Monica found a California native plant garden not only used 83% less water than one with a lawn and shrubs, but also created far less waste and required less maintenance.

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 of regionally appropriate native plants called CalScape. 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.

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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 greywater installation, a smart flow meter, or switching to a drought-friendly garden.

Renters can take advantage of some of these programs too, by switching in a free, water-efficient shower head (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.

The East Bay Municipal Utilities District offers rebates for flow meters that collect data on how much water you use, and where in your home. The agency has also doubled its rebate for converting yards into drought-friendly gardens.

Contra Costa County offers rebates up to $1000 for homeowners to ditch the front lawn.

In Marin County, the water district has rebates for rainwater storage systems and free mulching services — another way to have a drought-friendly yard.

Free water conservation kits are available in Alameda County, as are numerous rebates.

Valley Water in Santa Clara County offers rebates up to $400 for installing greywater systems.

San Francisco’s Public Utility District has a range of options — including free toilet replacement.

Many cities in Sonoma County have their own programs, which include rebates for turf removal and free fixtures like showerheads and faucets.

Options in San Mateo County include rebates for rain barrels.

Napa County will evaluate your water use at home for free and help you strategize how to cut back on water use.

Solano County offers rebates to upgrade to a high efficiency washing machine and switch to smart irrigation controllers.


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