Palo Alto resident Sue Kemp has long since turned off her automatic watering systems and tends by hand to the plants and shrubs she wants to save. She has not watered her back lawn in more than a year. She doesn't shower every day, doesn't flush the toilet every time, and saves water in her kitchen and bathroom that comes out of the tap as it heats up.
"What more can I do to help my city meet the new standards?" she asked recently.
Palo Altans have made strides to reduce their use of water in the past year. The city exceeded the Hetch Hetchy water system's call for a 10 percent voluntary reduction in 2014, saving 14 percent. Residents alone cut back nearly 18 percent; in February, homes used an average 70 gallons of water per capita per day.
Businesses have been able to save 8 percent, City of Palo Alto Utilities spokewoman Catherine Elvert said. There's a caveat to that discrepancy, however.
"It's worth noting that residents had a much higher baseline. During 2013, a very dry year with no drought restrictions, residents increased their consumption much more than businesses did, and so had more room to reduce consumption," she said.
During the hot months of 2014 June through September residents used an average 119 gallons per person, and all consumers in the city, including commercial customers, used 198.5 gallons per person during those months.
Consumers have a significant challenge to meet the state's new 25 percent reduction mandate, which Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law earlier this month.
But Palo Altans have already found creative ways to live with minimal water. Some report having cut back while brushing their teeth and washing their clothes; others have installed drought-resistant landscaping and rain-collection systems.
Barron Park Association President Markus Fromherz relandscaped his home seven years ago with many drought-resistant and native plants.
"That included a California sage meadow instead of a lawn, which only needs to be watered every other week or so. In the last year, we have stopped watering some of the plants on our property and are considering replacing them with something different, like a cactus or rock garden," he said.
Barron Park resident Doug Moran also converted much of his yard to native plants.
"My front yard is dominated by plants friendly to bees and birds. Pedestrians often stop to comment on both the color and the activity," he said.
Many people are installing greywater systems, which enables them to find new purposes for used water. Downtown North resident Sally-Ann Rudd and her husband installed a 5,000-gallon rainwater tank and greywater system when they moved into their home.
"We use the rainwater for laundry and toilets and landscape irrigation while it lasts. It's empty now, we had so little rain this winter," she said.
Installing the system wasn't an economic decision, she said.
"I felt passionately that it was the right thing to do given that water is an increasingly scarce resource, and it's a lot easier to capture it than, say, solar energy that takes a lot of specialist gear," she said.
David Coale of Barron Park removed the trap under his bathroom sink to collect water from shaving and tooth brushing into a basin. He saves about two to three gallons after each use, he said. He flushes the toilet almost exclusively using that water, he said.
Coale has devised a rainwater-collection system with a few supplies from the hardware store. During the most recent storm, water from his rooftop filled two 60-gallon rain barrels. A hose funnels any overflow directly into the garden, he said. Each barrel holds enough to water two trees once a week.
He also uses a simple greywater system. The $120 greywater laundry-to-landscape system didn't require a city permit, and he was able to get a rebate through the Santa Clara Valley Water District for some of his costs. The county does an inspection and signs off on the system.
With the turn of a valve Coale can water his majestic redwood trees in the front yard directly from his washing machine. Greywater can be used on ornamental trees and shrubs, but it should not be used on any edible crops he said.
Coale is able to use nearly all of his home's greywater with the exception of the dishwasher, he said. It's the only appliance for which he hasn't found biodegradable soap. Washing dishes by hand is not water efficient, he said.
Coale keeps careful computer records of his water use by the hour, day, week or month. A pie chart indicates what percentages are used for landscaping, bathing, and other uses. Coale recently devised a plan to reduce his water use by 47 percent from his "before" measurements, he said.
"Measuring all my water usage with my water meter and tracking it in the spreadsheet I made was a good way for me to see where I could make changes and was also very motivating," he said.
All Palo Alto homes have a water meter. Dials measure water flow in cubic feet. Coale records the data to get specific information after he uses an appliance or the tap. Shaving uses two to three gallons; the dishwasher uses nine, he said.
Coale noticed a leak after a meter reading showed water use while he was away. The hard part is locating the source of the leak, he said.
Residents and businesses may soon have an additional tool for water monitoring. City of Palo Alto Utilities is evaluating a pilot program, Customer Connect, which provides customers with real-time water and energy consumption data. A second program for nonresidential water users is in the works, Elvert said.
But Fromherz said to really save, people will need to look beyond their homes.
"Only about 10 to 20 percent of the water in California goes to urban use; the rest is for agriculture and environment. There are huge opportunities for saving water in California, but they're mostly in agriculture," he said. "Where we can have a larger impact as consumers, potentially, is by eating less meat. Besides using much less water, this would have the additional effect of reducing methane emissions, a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. I'm not claiming that my family has given up meat, but it's a debate we are having," he said.
Coale agreed: "One pound of beef takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce. That's a shower for a year for me."
The city and county offer rebates to residents and businesses for water-saving improvements. More information on these rebates, regulations, fines and drought updates can be found at cityofpaloalto.org/water and valleywater.org.
Information on greywater systems, water saving and how to read meters is available at acterra.org/findanswers/home/water.html.
To read tips on saving water, click here.
To read a Q&A with the City of Palo Alto Utilities Department spokeswoman Catherine Elvert, click here.