E-mail Sherry Listgarten About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving a... (More) About this blog: Climate change, despite its outsized impact on the planet, is still an abstract concept to many of us. That needs to change. My hope is that readers of this blog will develop a better understanding of how our climate is evolving and how they want to respond, and will feel comfortable asking questions and exchanging comments on the topic. It is important that we develop a shared understanding of the basic science and impacts of climate change, to make sense of our actions and policy options going forward. My background is not in climate science, and I'm not even particularly green; my hope is that helps to make this blog more relatable. I studied math and neurobiology on the east coast before moving out here in 1987 for grad school in computer science. After working in the tech industry for about 25 years, I retired a few years ago to better align my time with my priorities. I love spending time outdoors, and feel deeply our responsibility to this incredible planet that we call home. (Hide)
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We save water by picking up free recycled water in Contra Costa County. It keeps our lawns and drought tolerant plants happy. Dead lawns are depressing.
Last billing period (April 21-May 19) we used an average of 82 cubic feet a day with three people in the house. Our lot is 2300 square feet and we have been using less than required in previous drought restrictions by watering outside twice a week, showering twice a week, laundry twice a week and rarely using the dishwasher. The big use of water is keeping our pool filled and we don't know what we can do about that given it is kidney shaped and hard to cover. Peter
Last year we took out most of our lawn and replaced it with drought tolerant plants. As a result we use about 60% less water this year.
@Ronen, that is an incredible improvement you made in water use! I'd love to hear more about the process of taking out your lawn. How did that work? Also, if you have before/after photos that you want to share, you can email them to me and I'd be happy to post them. @Jennifer, thanks for the comment! What does it mean to pick up recycled water? Do you bring a bunch of big containers, fill them up, lug them out of your car, then fill up watering cans so you can hand water? (Also, where do you get the water?) @PeterB, thanks, that is really interesting about pool evaporation. I wonder if another reader will have a suggestion... BTW, a reader suggested that I include a link to this article on how to read your water meter. It has some great information, including how to check for leaks. These are all really interesting and helpful comments, thank you!
I use Purple Pipe Company which has recycled water.
Thank you so much for sharing this data. I think it's an important part of helping people understand water usage. I'm sort of the opposite of you. I don't think about my water usage very much at all. We replaced a low-flow shower head with a high-flow one some years back, for example. Our family of four uses 3.75 CCF/mo, averaged over a year. The secret is that we live in dense multifamily housing. If you don't have landscaping, nothing else matters: you use less than people who do. As a housing activist, I often hear people argue against dense housing with "but where will we get the water?" The reality is increasing density replaces high-water landscaping with low-water multifamily. Building multifamily in Palo Alto also prevents displacing housing development into exurban, landscaping-intensive areas (with higher climate/traffic/wildfire impacts.) I can't quickly find it now, but I found some time back that average use in our area is 11 or 12 CCF/mo. That's mixing up single-family and multi-family, so it doesn't tell you much about the difference. I suspect the gap between average SF and MF is more like 12-16 CCF, or enough to provision 3-4 homes. The point I'd make here is that homeowners concerned about high water bills should favor more high-density development in Palo Alto. It vastly reduces competition for water, relative to displacing the housing out to Gilroy and Stockton.
Sherry - We pick up free water at Central Contra Costa County District Facility. Yes, you have to bring your own containers and fill them up. You can take up to 300 gallons per trip, and make as many trips as you want, as long as you live in Contra Costa County. I don't know if a car would work. My husband uses his truck. Any water we don't use we share with our neighbor. We save a lot of water doing this, and it's worth it.
I took out my back lawn years ago and replaced with bark (playground fiber). It's not green, it's not cool, and you can't walk barefoot on it but it doesn't need any water. My front lawn is also long gone, replaced with native plants, rocks and minibark. I would say the time of front (decorative) lawns in California is long gone. We need gardens more in tune with the climate, which is dry and will only be getting drier. Now I don't water outside at all so for one person I average 30 gallons a day (1.2 ccf/month) even with a covered pool. I think a house with a no water yard is like multifamily housing as far as water use is concerned, like Scott was saying.
We remodeled out house in 2017, and in the process let our front/back lawns die. The front is now drought tolerant plants, and the back is decomposed granite (the latter was a bad choice, pavers or artificial grass would have been better). We now average 3.75 CCF per month (6600 Sq ft. lot, 2000 sq. foot house). The key to watering drought tolerant plants is to water less frequently, but for longer durations. The first year after the plants are planted, you might need to water 2-3 times a week. After the first year, you can ideally switch to once a week, then once every 8, 9, ... days. As the days get hotter (and the plants might need more water), the key is to increase the duration that you water that one day a week, and NOT to water more than one day a week. This will make your drought tolerant plants more robust and you will end using less water each year. My understanding is that using a dishwasher is supposed to use less water (on avg.) than washing dishes in a sink. We have a "drawer" dishwasher that is actually 2 smaller dishwasher in the space that 1 dish washer would normally take. With 3 people eating 3 meals a day at home, we can easily fill a drawer every 2 to 3 days (so the dishes don't get too gross sitting in the dishwasher). We have a gas-powered tankless water heater (yes, I know the recommendation is to a heat pump heater), which has a water recirculation option. That means that hot water continually recirculates through the pipes, so that when you go to shower the water becomes hot more quickly. That's good (less water)... but also bad, because you use more gas. I've tried (unsuccessfully) to find anything online that discusses the tradeoffs.
Just to clarify the development issue that Scott mentioned: Adding people here always increases the total amount of water used here, whether those new people are in high-density housing or not. That's the concern. To reduce the total amount of water used here, you have to reduce the number of people here, or change the water usage patterns of the people already here. There are several ways to do the latter, and Sherry's blog entry offers good insights into that process. (Thanks, Sherry!)
It is absolutely possible to increase the population while decreasing water use. Replace thirsty landscaping with efficient housing within a certain range of ratios, and you'll reduce water consumption. But the more important point is that people have been trying to keep growth from happening for fifty years. Hasn't worked! They've only succeeded in pushing sprawl into higher-impact areas. We could have had high-efficiency apartments near jobs. By voting against that, the Palo Alto electorate has gotten more lawns and gardens in Gilroy and Stockton competing with us for California's limited water (and road space) --and MUCH higher water bills (and traffic) along with that. The bad news is we've dug ourselves into a hole. The good news is it's never a bad time to stop digging.
"Replace thirsty landscaping", whether with housing or not, is an example of "change[ing] the water usage patterns of the people already here". The point is you can't simply add population without increasing water usage. To grow and stay within the limited water supply, you have to prepare for it first. (The same consideration applies to transportation, power, and other issues.) A great many people have been promoting growth for the past fifty years, and that's why we have so much of it. Agreed, it's a great time to stop digging. :-)
@Eddie - I plugged my hot water recirc pump into a smart outlet. I take showers at different times each day, so a minute before I get into the shower I turn it on from my smart phone. Hot and ready when I am - no wasted water. If you keep a more regular schedule, you could easily set a smart switch to turn it on for a few minutes before hand, priming the hot water pipe.
Some people collect laundry rinse water (from top loaders) either to wash the next load or to irrigate plants: Web Link Web Link If your plants are not near your laundry area, substantial piping could be involved.
Here's a couple of thoughts. Outside temps are reduced by shade and growing plants. A green lawn, lush vegetation and flowering plants will reduce the ambient outside temperature as well as the inside temperature of the rooms nearby. They are a form of natural air condition. Outside furniture, artificial grass, various types of rock formations, gravel, etc. all still need water to keep clean, particularly in areas where skunks, raccoons, etc. roam at night. If we want to use our outdoor space as extra living space (Eichlers were marketed for their outdoor/indoor living ability) then these things have to be taken into account. Our outdoor space can use no water if it is thought of as a designer backdrop like wallpaper, but for actual practical use as an integral living space for our homes, for children to play, families to eat, pets to exercise or to grow vegetables and fruit trees, we need watering them. Our lives are messy, and messes need to be cleaned and kept clean.
Replaced lawns with low water-use landscaping in 2013. Everything, including vegetable garden, is on drip irrigation with smart controller. We have 3-4 people living here most of the time. Our use is usually 80-90 gallons per day total. Our water bill is usually 4 CCF except summer when it might go up to 5 or 6 for one or two months. No heroics, no greywater, nothing except common sense and modern appliances. Driving water around in personal vehicles from Contra Costa County seems to me to be a bad trade-off of water vs gasoline and air pollution. (Ed note: I think the commenter who does this lives in Contra Costa County.)
Eddie said: "The key to watering drought tolerant plants is to water less frequently, but for longer durations." That is not correct. The key is to water just long enough to wet the root zone but no more. If you water deeper than the plant roots you are wasting that water. Use a soil moisture probe. Find out, given your soil and your roots and your water delivery system, how long it takes to wet to the bottom of the root zone. Stick with that time and adjust the frequency as needed. Wait until the top half of the soil you are watering has dropped in moisture content by 50%, then water again. That will keep your root zones moist without drying out or overwatering. If you have heavy clay and water starts to run off before you wet the whole root zone, water in two separate cycles separated by an hour to allow the water to soak in. Master Gardeners of Sonoma County have a paper on how to calculate a drip irrigation schedule: Web Link
Picking up water is not a "bad trade off." My husband goes every other month, and he can get there and back on less than a gallon of gas. We live in central Contra Costa County. We save $35-$40 a month, and we have two huge green lawns, and happy plants. If we didn't pick up recycled water, we'd be considered "water wasters" because we don't want dead lawns. They're fine for others, especially during a water shortage. Dead lawns are too depressing for me.
My last water bill from Palo Alto charged me about $0.014 per gallon. If gasoline costs $6 per gallon and you use 1 gallon of gas you would need to get 6/0.014 = 428 gallons of water per trip to break even. Even in the good old days when gas was $4 per gallon you would need to get 286 gallons per trip to break even. I don't see it being worth it unless is water is a lot more expensive. Perhaps the economics are different in Contra Costa County.
It's not just gas vrs. water. We save $35-$40 a month on our water bill, which means we save $70 - $80 per trip. It doesn't cost $70 or $80 in gas. Reading comprehension? We also have very green lawns, which we wouldn't have during a water shortage if we weren't picking up free water. Saving $70- $80 isn't much, but it adds up. I don't remember if water was higher when we lived in Palo Alto. It's not worth it to everyone. Some people are too lazy to do what my husband is doing, and they couldn't care less if they waste water. We care.
Your water must cost a lot more than ours in Palo Alto. How much do you pay per gallon? How much per month that you can save $35 - $40? My water bill only runs $35-$50 per month.
@Eddie, re recirc lines and energy cost vs water cost, I am going to measure that at some point and will let you know. In the meantime, faucet-activated recirc seems interesting (do an internet search). My plumber recommended it. @Donald, I think you are onto something. IMO sensible building codes plus low-water plants plus smart irrigation should be enough. I am amazed at your water use. Feel free to send a pic of your low-water yard and I will post it! @Jennifer, I expect you would like Purple Pipe if they were in your neighborhood. Looks like they have a waitlist now!
FWIW, it looks to me like the rates are the same ballpark, namely $5-$10 per hundred cubic feet, or between $0.01 and $0.02 per gallon. (1 CCF is 748 gallons.) One of the reasons I'm not excited about rain barrels or whatever is they are so small in the grand scheme of things, and the rain is concentrated here, so they will be full very rarely. I really like the "just fix your landscape and irrigation" approach, if it can be done at low cost.
I'm not sure what we pay per gallon, but our water bill was $65-$70 per month before we started picking up water. We have large yards, a swimming pool, etc. I really thought our water usage was higher than average until I just read an East Bay Times article that with a 6 percent rate increase, average water bill would be $60.33 in Contra Costa County. The article was dated Jan. 2017 - 5 1/2 years ago. Either we pay more for water out here or water usage is higher. Or both. Unless your bill is lower than average in Palo Alto. Sherry - Yes, I would like Purple Pipe if they were in our neighborhood.
Great article! What I have found very useful is actually knowing how much water I use. The device I installed was recommended by a friend- it's called Flume, made by a small company in San Luis Obispo-$200 on Amazon. You strap their sensor onto your water meter- takes 5 minutes, no plumber. It connects to your home Wi-Fi and gives you accurate readings of your water use. The phone app show the breakdown of outdoor and indoor use, breaking out showers, toilet flushes, and other uses. It's great to see what your usage is, and it will detect leaks and send your text alerts. That Flume device has helped me to titrate our household use to 60gal/day per person. That is the level that the SoCal water people are shooting for, and I expect we in the Bay Area will get to that soon. I live in Los Altos and have found that the outdoor use is the biggest water waste. Using Flume has helped me to get real data on the usage. I think the water companies should roll these devices out to all customers so you can make educated changes in your water use.
Thanks for an article like this!
I remember it as this article Web Link
I hope I get the time to do a detailed reply here. Residential water use in the Bay Area is so politicized that people don't realize it's mostly a solved problem. The trouble is (portion removed: not everyone wants) to create desalination, recycling, or storage solutions (portion removed). Scott touched on some of the themes, but I think he's missing the big picture. None of these actions we're taking like replacing landscaping or shorter showers or any of it is really about helping the environment. (portion removed) In the broad scheme of things, residential water use is a tiny fraction of what's used for agriculture and environmental protection. A visit to the army corps of engineers Bay model in Marin county is very worthwhile to get some perspective here. Hoping to get a chance to post more. Many of us have been duped. Ed note: BobB, please avoid broad generalizations that attack whole categories of people.
@Donald I don't think our watering suggestions are necessarily contradictory. My main point was that if it gets really hot, then water longer - not more often. The site you link says the same thing - e.g. if it gets really hot, use your irrigation system's override system to increase the watering duration (but not frequency). Again, this applies to established plants, not new plants.
I stand by all the points in my original post, and I think they were really important ones. Apart from that I want to emphasize that brown lawns and unwashed cars do absolutely nothing to prevent climate change or address any kind of environmental issue. There is opposition to both building new housing and the water infrastructure necessary to support the new housing. Yes in my backyard.
This is the way I save water. I have a plastic basin in the kitchen sink. Whatever water I use in the sink goes back to my plants-easy and affordable.
I take a shower with a bucket, and that water waters some of my plants.
It's true that agriculture takes the lion's share of water in California - but it's a more justified use than keeping yards green. There is a thought that people should use native plants from areas a little south of here. The idea is it's anticipating some inevitable part of climate change. Our back yard is on a once-per-two week 15 minute irrigation cycle, and it looks great. Our front yard only gets leftover water from washing veggies, and it's fine. It supports local birds, butterflys, and bees. It certainly looks better than dead grass. If you like green ground cover, and don't need to walk on it, Carmel Sur Manzanita is always dark green, and once established (3 years), doesn't need more than a little water here in Menlo Park (maybe once per month). Bonus: edge once per year and you're done.
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