Palo Alto has a strong sustainability focus. So, it was a surprise to learn that Palo Alto is ranked 22 out of 26 water agencies for per person water use, measured against other agencies that get water from the San Francisco Regional Water System. Shouldn't we be among the best of this group?
Our actions matter. Our water use comes with a significant environmental cost. Eighty-five percent of our water is imported from the Tuolumne River in the central Sierra. Because of the excessive drawdown of water from the Tuolumne, salmon are on the verge of extinction, with only 578 salmon counted last year, where counts once measured in the tens of thousands.
The lack of salmon affects the whole Tuolumne ecosystem. Imagine you're a California black bear. You certainly can't rely on Tuolumne salmon to feed your offspring. The health of the Tuolumne is directly related to the amount of water we take out of the river.
How are we doing during this latest drought? Because of the severity of the drought, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) — the agency that manages the water system — asked the 26 member agencies to reduce water use by 10%. Yet, our utilities department provided a table that shows Palo Alto's water use went down only 2.6% in the current water year through March, as compared to two years ago.
If we're about sustainability, shouldn't we be a leader in reducing our water use? For the 25 water agencies we're compared to, their average use went down 5.3%, about double our reduction.
One might argue that the first three months of the year were very dry, so we had to water our landscapes. Yes, but other cities have landscapes too and they were able to save twice as much water as us. They faced the same dry conditions.
Like any city, Palo Alto has its extremes. Some homes have gone all out, taking advantage of water-saving techniques such as planting low-water tolerant plants, removing lawns, saving and distributing rain water, or even going as far as having recycled water trucked to their homes. But other homes, at the opposite end of the water use spectrum, have lush lawns, overwatered shrubs, and inefficient or broken irrigation systems.
We hope that once more families learn that using less water is a life-or-death matter for the Tuolumne River ecosystem, they will be inspired to save more of our precious water. Let's find steps we can take to improve our water-use efficiency.
The following are some ways to save water:
• First, make sure you are not wasting water, both inside and outdoors. Most water waste is in landscaping. Confirm that your irrigation system is watering plants, not walkways or the street. The Santa Clara Valley Water District can help you by sending someone to do a Water Waste Outdoor Survey (go to [email protected] to schedule).
• Second, once your irrigation system is in good working order, water properly. You may be surprised to learn your plants need far less water than you are giving them.
• If you are interested in changing out your water-thirsty lawn, visit the city's Save Energy page. If you would like to know more about using rainwater for your landscape, go to the city's Stormwater Rebates page.
• And if you'd like to learn more about greywater systems, visit the Greywater Action website.
• In addition, you can apply 2 inches of organic mulch to shrub beds — we lose 30% of soil moisture through evaporation.
• There are some plants that you don't want to skimp on: Your trees are an important community asset. Be sure your valuable trees are getting enough water, even while you're cutting back on watering lawns and shrub zones. Visit the city's Urban Forest page.
• Additional details and more information about the drought is available on this Drought Updates website.
One of us — Dave — made a number of these changes this last winter and has already seen a drop in his water use as compared to last year. Some non-native plants were replaced with low-water natives such as the orange monkeyflower. Extra mulch was added to reduce evaporation. Drip irrigation schedules were reduced. A small patch of grass was replaced with a sitting area.
He did lose a plant to a gopher, but otherwise he's received compliments, and his backyard is more inviting.
We hope that once Palo Altans understand the consequences of wasting water, we'll all join together to use our precious Tuolumne River water more wisely.