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Is Water Conservation Working in Silicon Valley?

Silicon Valley communities have responded positively to local and statewide conservation mandates, reducing water use by letting lawns brown or replacing them with drought-tolerant plants. But what effects have their efforts had – and will they translate to more permanent water savings?

Written byTara Lohan Published on Mar. 1, 2016 Read time Approx. 8 minutes
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SARATOGA, California – Alan Hackler used to be the guy digging in the dirt. Now, he’s more likely to spend his day hopping between job sites in his pickup truck and meeting with prospective clients. Hackler is the founder of Bay Maples, a landscaping company whose clients span the length of Silicon Valley. And business is booming, thanks in part to the drought.

“Every garden we do is a lawn removal more or less,” said Hackler, standing on what used to be the front lawn of a house in Saratoga in central Santa Clara County. Now a stone path snakes through the space. Grass has been replaced by arbor mulch; underneath a layer of recycled cardboard keeps the weeds at bay.

Hackler’s crew has just finished planting an array of native and edible plants, including avocado, peach, nectarine, cherry, plum and citrus trees. Thyme creeps in between the stones and rosemary and lilac verbena will add purple flair. Drought-tolerant landscaping doesn’t have to be rocks and cactus, said Hackler, moving the mulch aside to reveal the lines of a drip irrigation system he installed that uses gray water from the house.

All this turf removal and relandscaping is of course spurred by drought, but it’s boosted by conservation mandates and financial incentives from water agencies. But how much impact can temporary rebates for things like lawn removal really have on a severe statewide drought and will it usher in an era of more water-wise use?

Responding to Crisis

Last April Gov. Jerry Brown announced California’s first ever mandatory reduction in urban water use, which called for statewide cuts of 25 percent above 2013 levels. Brown’s announcement came at a press conference during the April snowpack reading in the town of Phillips Station at 7,000ft (2,150m) of elevation. He stood on bare grass as the snowpack readings across the mountains barely registered at a historical low of 5 percent of normal.

Clearly something needed to be done, especially after calls for voluntary water cuts in 2014 resulted in minimal conservation.

Statewide, Californians for the most part rose to the challenge in 2015, although the hottest, driest inland areas of the state continue to struggle and the winter months have turned in less impressive conservation numbers than summer and fall.

In Silicon Valley, Gov. Brown’s call was well heeded.

Santa Clara Valley Water District, the wholesale water provider in Santa Clara County, reported cumulative water savings in the county from June through December 2015 of 27 percent. And the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), which represents most of the water agencies of San Mateo County, eight in Santa Clara County and two in Alameda County, reported cumulative savings of 28 percent.

The statewide mandate also set specific reductions for each municipality or water district based on per capita water use – the higher the use, the higher the target. In Silicon Valley, mandates ranged from 8 to 36 percent, and virtually everywhere met the targets and most exceeded them.

In Menlo Park, for example, residents were instructed to cut use by 16 percent. “They are a community that can afford to pay their way out of it and that’s always a concern – do they do that?” said Nicole Sandkulla, the CEO and general manager of BAWSCA. “But their numbers show that is not what they did.”

Instead of coughing up money to pay fines, Menlo Park residents achieved a 44 percent saving in water use. “They’ve made dramatic changes and the city has pushed and provided incentives to get their customers to respond,” said Sandkulla. “The water saving came mostly from changing from lush, East Coast-type landscapes to something more native and drought tolerant.”

The biggest residential water guzzler is usually outside the house. Outdoor water use can consume anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of a household’s water use, depending on the climate, the time of year and the landscape.

Morgan Hill in southern Santa Clara County had a 28 percent target. “There are a lot of single family homes here,” said Tony Eulo, the city’s program administrator. “Therefore there were a lot of yards being irrigated, so we were using more water per capita than some of our other Santa Clara County friends and therefore the state gave us a higher target to reach.”

Despite the higher target, Morgan Hill residents cut water use by more than 35 percent cumulatively between June and December 2015. How did they do it?

“The short answer is that our community has responded really cooperatively and strongly to our guidelines and restrictions,” said Eulo. “Our approach has been to adopt regulations such as you can only water two days per week and so the community has responded and followed our rules and therefore has produced some pretty impressive reductions.”

The city also implemented a public education campaign and added to an existing landscape rebate campaign. Valley Water District offered $2 a foot for lawn removal and Morgan Hill tacked an extra dollar on to the deal. “We had a lot of people who let their lawns die or have gone through the process of relandscaping with drought-tolerant plantings,” he said. “It’s going to take a few years for the community to recover, visually, if you will.”

Hackler has found that the vast majority of his clients have used rebates offered through water agencies. Turf removal rebates, though, aren’t as helpful in spurring conservation in areas where people don’t have many lawns, such as the small residential community of Westborough in northern San Mateo County. With very low per capita water use, it was tasked with only an 8 percent conservation standard. After all, it’s harder to conserve water when you’re already using so little.

But Westborough managed a cumulative saving during 2015 of nearly 26 percent. Westborough’s general manager Darryl Barrow said he “mainly attributed it to our customers hearing our call to cut back on water and irrigation.” More than 70 percent of the district contains homes with small front and back yards, he said, adding that they didn’t offer turf removal rebates but did for washing machines and toilets.

“We went into the drought with some of the lowest per capita in the state and that’s been through aggressive conservation because we knew we had a supply that was limited anyway,” said Sandkulla. “The biggest question we had was how were customers going to respond, given that some of them were already very low, and they’ve responded phenomenally.”

BAWSCA offered rebates for toilets, lawn removal and rain barrels – and held landscaping classes. In Santa Clara County, Valley Water District doled out $200 for each household that installed a system to use washing-machine water for gray-water irrigation.

And Hackler saw the impact in his landscaping business. “We’re doing three different gray-water projects at different houses at the same time, right now,” he said. “It’s gotten considerably more popular. Before I used to encourage clients to do it, now I’ve got people calling constantly wanting to do it.”

Conservation efforts in Santa Clara County were also boosted by limiting watering to two days a week and having the same designated days across the county. It not only made compliance easier, but it made spotting violators easier, too.

“Group commitment and neighbor commitment is a strong motivator,” said Garth Hall, Valley Water District’s deputy operating officer. The agency also deployed a team of “water waste inspectors” who made home visits to inefficient water users. The agency shelled out $18 million between 2014 and 2015 for conversion of landscapes to drought-friendly plants and the program was so popular that it ran out of money.

Analyzing the Impact

The efforts that Silicon Valley residents have made to conserve water are paying off in more ways than just boosting statistics.

For the BAWSCA agencies, most of which are in San Mateo County, it means more water in the “bank.” Their water is supplied from San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy system in Yosemite. And local savings have a direct impact on keeping more water in storage in the mountains.

“This system is very different. When they save the water off the Hetchy system it actually stays in the reservoir up there,” said Sandkulla. “As opposed to if you are part of State Water Project sometimes you can keep it, sometimes you can’t.

Water conservation is making an impact in Santa Clara County, too. Faced with limited allocations of surface water from the state and federal water projects, Valley Water District asked its retail agencies to cut water use by 30 percent in 2015 because local groundwater basins were being overdrafted. Agencies achieved a 27 percent reduction and Hall said it has made a difference in halting the aquifer’s decline.

One thing that helped was the governor’s orders that made conservation goals statewide and put a spotlight on the drought in the media, he said.

“The fact that the State Water Resources Control Board also in 2015 set very tough standards and restrictions on a city-by-city level was also very helpful,” said Hall. “The advantage that the state board had was there were real [financial] penalties to cities that did not meet those standards.”

But agencies are also still trying to figure out all the ways in which customers contributed to conservation.

“One of the things that we’re going to be looking at after this drought is how did customers achieve these savings,” said Sandkulla. “And are they going to be permanent? Are they habit changes? Can we count on them continuing forward? We are planning to look at all that next year.”

Hall thinks that some of the changes being made, like converting grass to drought-tolerant plants, will make a lasting difference, even when the drought ends.

“That effort is a long-term water conservation effort,” he said. “Yes, it helps immediately in this drought but once these landscapes are converted this way for the foreseeable future those will continue to help with water use reduction.”

Hall thinks it’s close to a tipping point where enough people have made changes that others may follow without financial incentives.

“Where you have neighborhoods with a relatively high percentage of conversion, I think you have an implicit encouragement to others to do it even without financial incentives,” he said.

When you consider the costs involved in engineering solutions to combat drought impacts, such as building new facilities for desalinating or recycling water, or building new dams and reservoirs for storage, conservation is both cheap and quick, which makes it a crucial tool.

Across the Pacific, Australia endured a decade-long drought and learned the value of conservation.

“The Australian experience shows that investment in water conservation options provided the cheapest, quickest and most effective contribution to managing demand during the drought,” said Professor Stuart White, director of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, at the University of Technology Sydney. “Without them, many cities and towns would have run out of water.”

This may be a good lesson for Silicon Valley, because – drought or no drought – water pressures are likely going to continue.

“The sad and unfortunate truth is that there really isn’t going to be an end to the drought. We live in a dry climate,” said Hackler. “Even if the drought gets better, we will then have more people living here, more industry, more farming. They’ll be wetter and drier years but it’s always going to be a drought climate.”

Top image: New drought-tolerant landscaping is planted at a home in Saratoga, California, after the lawn was removed to conserve water. (Tara Lohan)