Saving a gallon at a time

City offers rebates, advice for cutting back on water use

Concerned about a possible drought in the next couple of years, but confused about how to personally make a difference -- without totally killing the landscaping?

A number of programs run by the City of Palo Alto are encouraging residents (and businesses) to cut back on their water use, by offering free audits and rebates for replacing high-water-using appliances. (For a complete list of all the programs, visit and type in "Water Conservation.")

Amanda Cox, the City of Palo Alto water-conservation coordinator, suggests Santa Clara County residents start with a free "Water-Wise House Call," during which surveyors will review specific water usage in a home. The surveyor will check for leaks, both indoors and out, and make suggestions about seasonal irrigation, for example. (Call 800-548-1882 to schedule an appointment.)

According to Cox, a typical Palo Alto homeowner uses 15 water units a month, or 11,220 gallons (one water unit, or ccf, equals 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons).

Indoors, the biggest water guzzlers -- 15 percent of total water in the home -- are toilets manufactured before 1992, which typically use seven gallons per flush. The city is offering rebates of $125 to replace them with high-efficiency, or dual-flush, toilets that use only 1.28 gallons per flush.

"The federal standard is 1.6 gallons. We're going past that bar," Cox said, noting that "there's much better technology (today) and no need to flush twice."

Dual flush toilets have been very popular in Australia, Europe and Asia, she added.

Next highest use, at 12 percent, is laundry. The city is offering $100-150 rebates for qualifying, front-loading, low-energy use models.

"This saves both water and energy," Cox said, noting that the cycle spins so fast, you also save on dryer energy since it doesn't need to run as long. Clothes roll through the water in a front-loader, rather than soaking in a filled tub, which uses far less water.

Showers account for another 9 to 10 percent of home water use, Cox said, so the city recommends replacing pre-1992 showerheads with newer ones that constrict flow to 2.5 gallon per minute or less.

Faucets -- especially older ones with higher flow rates -- make up another 8 percent. The city gives out free aerators, with larger flow suggested for kitchens, less for bathrooms, she added. (Free low-flow showerheads, faucet aerators and toilet leak-detection tablets are available through the Santa Clara Valley Water District, by calling 408-265-2607, ext. 2554.)

Dishwashing and baths represent about 1 percent each, and all the rest of indoor use is usually leaks, either from dripping faucets or toilets, Cox said.

Since outdoor water use accounts for 50 to 60 percent of most homeowners' water usage, the city is offering a Residential Irrigation System Hardware Rebate program, with up to $1,000 returned on more efficient hardware. Palo Alto residents can also get up to $2,000 under the Water Efficient Landscape Rebate program, which "encourages people to take out turf and put in low-water using plants," such as native, drought-tolerant ones or permeable hardscape, Cox said. She quoted a landscaper as saying, "You only need as much turf to do a cartwheel," noting that both Palo Alto and Morgan Hill are doubling the rebate in Santa Clara County, and commercial customers can receive up to $20,000 for replacing turf.

And, the Weather Based Irrigation Controller Rebate Program offers rebates on instruments that manage the watering schedule.

The Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA) has recently put together a CD on "Water-Wise Gardening in the Bay Area," which offers everything from inspirational garden photos to very-specific tips on seasonal watering schedules. The CD offers suggestions for front, back and side yards, parking strips and borders, as well as plants that will thrive without a lot of water. To get a copy of the free CD, call 650-329-2241.

Palo Alto -- and nearby cities -- are not officially in a drought.

"We're not requiring a 10 percent reduction, but other agencies are," Cox said. "They're waiting to see how this water year plays out before we can really move ahead and say we're at a mandatory 10 percent (cutback)."

But the city is moving ahead to encourage residents to participate in its water-conservation programs.

"We're looking at 10 percent reduction in water usage -- for both residential and commercial programs," Cox said, adding that the city recently renewed its cost-sharing agreement with the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

Carol Blitzer


Posted by Friend of Native Plants, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 27, 2007 at 5:35 pm

**outdoor water use accounts for 50 to 60 percent of most homeowners' water usage ** the Water Efficient Landscape Rebate program, which encourages people to take out turf and put in low-water using plants," such as native, drought-tolerant ones **

If we want to conserve water by encouraging native plants, laws that protect redwoods don't cut it 'cuz they are not native and not drought-tolerant. There are probably other city policies that, if scrutinized, wouldn't pass muster either. Any suggestions for the stewards of our fair town?

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 27, 2007 at 7:36 pm

It is foolish to believe we can conserve our way out of water shortages. We need to continue the development of all available fresh water resources. When the supply becomes so dire as to consider R/O and recycling, we need to remind ourselves that these processes consume mucho energy, another commodity artifically made scarce too. Lawns moderate the temperature and hold down dust. Xeroscaping can contribute dust storms. Time to put away childish Bambi biology and Ehrlich Malthusianism and get back ahead of the curve.

Posted by Mary, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 27, 2007 at 7:48 pm

The water-wise housecall which we had done by the Santa Clara Valley Water District was excellent. However the CD we were given,"Water-WIse Gardening forSanta Clara County"
does not work on a Mac.

Posted by Jenny, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 27, 2007 at 7:58 pm

Remembering the 5 year drought in the early 1990s, well I did. I have allowed the grass in my backyard to die, two-thirds of my front yard is ivy and I can hand water the very small front lawn, meanwhile my front yard still looks good for the neighbors!!

Posted by Anonymous, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 28, 2007 at 7:52 am

Is it time to start exponential water pricing again? Let price determine consumer's water usage.

As for developing more water sources, yes, but there is still only so much. If there isn't a significant snow pack, building more dams isn't going to save much water. Southern California is in much worse shape and it's only a matter of time for another peripheral canal. It's going to be bad for the entire state no matter how many new water sources are developed if we don't have snow in the Sierras.

Posted by Adam, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 28, 2007 at 9:26 am

If the City suggests we all cut our water use by 10%, this would penalize those who presently do all they can to conserve. Anonymous has it right; exponential water pricing would be the fair way to go to distribute a limited resource.

In some (should be all) new developments two water distribution lines are being installed. One is for potable water, the other for recycled or desalinized water. The latter is still too expensive to be practical but recycled water is cost effective now.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2007 at 11:41 am

Refusing to develop available resources is political malpractice.

Posted by Walter Mitty, a resident of Adobe-Meadows
on Nov 28, 2007 at 11:44 am

Save the baby, or save the bath water, Walter? To hear you talk, one might expect to see you clear-cutting Foothills Park.

Posted by janette, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 28, 2007 at 5:04 pm

Try again, Friend of Native Plants, the falsehood about redwoods not being native is getting progressively more ludicrous. I guess the name of the town is really El Sugar Maple.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2007 at 6:07 pm

They clear cut cornfields, and they grow back. Vegetation is not permanent. Water out the Gate is lost to us. Bathwater is readily recycled, toilet water less so. Playing one-up on conventional toilets is an ego game. Retrofit vacuum flush for black waste and really cut a fat hog. Let civil engineers take care of civil works and reasign Gorebists to whatever they do that is of value.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2007 at 6:10 pm

Oh, and Walter, - tapocket.

Posted by Beth Nord, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 28, 2007 at 10:54 pm

Some of us have already eliminated that 9-11% represented by showers and baths...and the percent represented by drinking water as well. I am referring to those of us who have a toxic reaction to the chloramine disinfectant that is used in our water. Problems include skin, respiratory and digestive reactions. If you are having inexplicable problems in any of those areas, check out It may be the water.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 29, 2007 at 4:18 am

Amen on chloramine, Ms. Nord. This was a foolish response to the banish chlorine movement, instituted with little consideration of side effects.

Posted by Friend of Native Plants, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 29, 2007 at 7:09 am

Janette --

The watering needs of redwoods here in Palo Alto are not inconsequential. Redwood trees' native range has a mean annual rainfall of 70". Palo Alto's average annual rainfall -- a mere 15" before global warming -- is 1/5th of the water redwoods need. The rest comes from our public water supply. That, according to UC's Natural Resources group, is a "huge commitment" for a tree.

You've posted to other online discussions your comment about redwoods being native. Just curious, what part of those long, detailed discussions about redwoods not being native in these parts was not persuasive? The well respected UC Berkeley Botanist's detailed description of the coastal redwood's native range being the coast, pointing out that Palo Alto is not in that range? The old pictures of the Palo Alto landscape with nary a redwood, save El Palo Alto, in site? The city arborist's statement that virtually all the redwoods in town have been planted by the city and homeowners, and recently at that?

No one knows how El Palo Alto got here, but they do know that it stood out because it was the only redwood in the area and hence a landmark for the explorers. It survived because it got its water from the creek. Now that that creek is dry, it is alive only because of an extensive water misting system installed that runs up its 100+ foot tall trunk.

My point is simply that in times like these, where water is a scarce and expensive resource, there should not be City policies and incentives that fly in the face of conservation. Use the extra water to keep El Palo Alto alive, but look again about the wisdom of forcing homeowners of the other 1,000s of redwoods in town to keep their redwoods and burden on our water supply in ways that native trees, like oaks, don't do.

The City's position on redwood trees comes to mind because it was recently in the news, but I suspect there are others like it as well. Our community, public and private, should audit its practices and see what makes sense in this era of global warming. No one and nothing should be exempt from the discussion.

If you were a member and logged in you could track comments from this story.

Post a comment

Posting an item on Town Square is simple and requires no registration. Just complete this form and hit "submit" and your topic will appear online. Please be respectful and truthful in your postings so Town Square will continue to be a thoughtful gathering place for sharing community information and opinion. All postings are subject to our TERMS OF USE, and may be deleted if deemed inappropriate by our staff.

We prefer that you use your real name, but you may use any "member" name you wish.

Name: *

Select your neighborhood or school community: * Not sure?

Comment: *

Verification code: *
Enter the verification code exactly as shown, using capital and lowercase letters, in the multi-colored box.

*Required Fields

Veggie Grill coming soon to Mountain View's San Antonio Center
By Elena Kadvany | 16 comments | 2,997 views

Allowing Unauthorized Immigrants to Learn and Earn Legally Will Help the Economy
By Steve Levy | 38 comments | 2,692 views

College applications: round three
By Sally Torbey | 26 comments | 1,979 views

Is HBO's Silicon Valley Any Good?
By Anita Felicelli | 18 comments | 1,943 views

PAUSD Leadership Challenges
By Paul Losch | 19 comments | 1,488 views