Conserving water at home

By October 8, 2012Sustainable Landscaping


Replacing water thirsty lawns with native grasses can help reduce dependence… ( @Shmuel Thaler ) Article reprinted from the 9/29/12 Santa Cruz Sentinel by Jason Hoppin
SANTA CRUZ — When it comes to conserving water around the home, 13-year-olds can be excellent barometers.

That is true in Sherry Bryan’s household, one of many locally who’ve managed to compress their water use to a few dozen gallons a day. Together, they stand as an example of what the future may hold for everyone around the Monterey Bay, as the region grapples with pressures on its water supply, weighing a controversial desalination plant while critics say conservation is the way to go.

Raising two 13-year-olds with her partner, Bryan has convinced them to save water, even convincing teenagers to use a shower shut-off valve when not rinsing. With a few household changes, their use is down to an average of 37 gallons a day each, roughly a third of the county average.

“It’s pretty basic,” said Bryan, a consultant and water conservation specialist. “You just have to have the consciousness about it.”

Most of the conservation changes involve low-water household technologies, such as low-flow showerheads and toilets, or more efficient dishwashers and washing machines. Together, those measures can save dozens of gallons a day.

Other changes are behavioral — from not letting sinks run unnecessarily to using a basin to wash dishes to scraping dinner plates. And some push the envelope further, using grey water to support landscaping.

There are even conservation renegades, people who flirt with crossing legal lines. Their tactics include using wastewater to recharge toilets, capturing urine to condition soil or even composting human waste with special toilets.

It is those kinds of measures that make regulators — who’ve spent a career keeping new and used water separate, enforcing the division through building codes and fines — nervous.

“I think it’s important to remember that it’s only 100 years ago that entire cities were dying because of plague and various illnesses,” said Tony Falcone, Santa Cruz County’s top building inspector. “Where we draw the line currently is at bringing reclaimed or recycled water back into the house. … (T)hat’s just not allowed.”

But Falcone acknowledges that some milder conservation measures are probably here to stay.

“This is exactly what we’ve argued against for the last 100 years, and now we’re going backward. But water’s the new oil,” Falcone said.

Numerous water conservers contacted for this story stressed that the lifestyle changes needed to achieve major water savings are pretty basic. You don’t have to give up your vegetable garden or quit showering.

One local conservation evangelist is Arlos Anderson, who has drained his water usage to 17 gallons a day.

“I’m kind of over the horizon on this,” he admits.

Anderson’s home is a virtual conservation laboratory, including household inventions with pending patents that he eventually wants to give away to the public. He overflows with ideas, including using local abandoned quarries to capture winter runoff as an alternative to desalination plants, solving a water problem at a fraction of the cost while creating a new recreational destination.

“If we waited for the government to come up with the solution, we’d be standing on the docks waiting for Columbus to leave Spain,” Anderson said.

But Anderson also raised an ongoing debate about building codes often getting in the way of conservation. As an example, he points out that reused water must often be brought up to drinking water standards, even if it’s headed for the head.

“We need to stop thinking we’re going to be drinking water out of our toilets,” Anderson said.

Despite official warnings and legal prohibitions, it is widely believed that people around the county are experimenting with extreme conservation measures anyway.

“In Santa Cruz, we’re good pirates. Much to the horror of the county — and I’m just going to make some conservative estimates — there are dozens of homemade composting toilet systems where people are composting waste in their own backyards,” Anderson said.

Landscaping changes can be a big source of water savings, and through the years the county’s developed a cottage industry installing lush but low-water gardens, supported by several native nurseries and a UC Santa Cruz Farm and Garden project that has drilled generations in sustainable ecological practices.

One local specialist is Ken Foster, who started Terra Nova Landscaping 25 years ago and teaches permaculture at Cabrillo College.

“You can have a very attractive landscape without having it be high maintenance,” Foster said, who finds a local trove of customers anxious to convert water-consuming lawns into ecologically friendly landscaping.

Click this link to see time lapse of lawn removal by Terra Nova…

Golden Love of Love’s Gardens installs grey water systems and said entire backyards can be watered with a 6-gallon load of laundry. Many are drawn to it because it keeps water out of overtaxed septic systems, but Love said environmental concerns are at the forefront of people’s minds.

“What a lot of it is, these are the early adapters. A lot of these people just want to do the right thing. They have solar panels on their house already, and they say, ‘What’s the next thing I do? Oh, it’s grey water? Let’s do that,'” Love said.

Anderson and Bryan may seem like conservation extremists, but they stand on a horizon toward which the rest of us are traveling. The state wants water use slashed 20 percent by 2020, and local water agencies are setting even more aggressive goals — and not just in water-strapped Santa Cruz County.

The Monterey Peninsula Water Management Agency has set a minimum figure for how much each person requires: 35 gallons, less than what Bryant’s family uses. In theory, people could be asked to use that amount during severe droughts.

“Thirty-five gallons is plenty of water for indoor needs,” said Stephanie Pintar, water demand manager for the agency.

But the county’s bang for its conservation buck could be reaching limits. Many county water users already have cut their use far back from what other most Californians use.

Partly because of the cool, foggy weather, the Central Coast uses far less water that the Central Valley, and Santa Cruzans use even less. Over the past 10 years, the state’s per capita average daily use is 133 gallons, though the number drops to 109 gallons along the Central Coast.

Over the same time, Santa Cruz Water Department customers have used just 67 gallons a day, and in 2010 it was down to 56. Soquel Creek Water District customers are also far below the statewide average, using just 66 gallons per day, according to the most recent figures.

For many who practice water conservation, the issue of a desalination plant bubbles just below the surface. Despite evidence of growing saltwater intrusion into area aquifers and even the abandonment of some wells, they see a desalination plant as unnecessary, even a sign of surrender.

“Part of it is, ‘How can we have a sustainable water system?'” Foster said. “And a desalination plant is not part of that.”


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