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Opinion: Palo Alto's water use is not what it should be

The MP rotator system involves sprinkler heads that spray smaller streams of water at a slower rate. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

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.

From left, Jennifer Frizzell and Dave Warner. Courtesy photos.

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.

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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).

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• 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.

• If you see water being wasted, you can report it to the city through email ([email protected]), phone (650-496-6968) and web via Palo Alto 311.

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.

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Julianne Frizzell has practiced landscape architecture on the Peninsula for over 30 years, has lived in Palo Alto for 25 years and can be reached at [email protected] Dave Warner has been advocating for sustainable water practices for the last six years, has lived in Palo Alto for 27 years and can be reached at [email protected]

Follow Palo Alto Online and the Palo Alto Weekly on Twitter @paloaltoweekly, Facebook and on Instagram @paloaltoonline for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

Opinion: Palo Alto's water use is not what it should be

by Julianne Frizzell and Dave Warner /

Uploaded: Fri, Jun 17, 2022, 6:55 am

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.

• If you see water being wasted, you can report it to the city through email ([email protected]), phone (650-496-6968) and web via Palo Alto 311.

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.

Julianne Frizzell has practiced landscape architecture on the Peninsula for over 30 years, has lived in Palo Alto for 25 years and can be reached at [email protected] Dave Warner has been advocating for sustainable water practices for the last six years, has lived in Palo Alto for 27 years and can be reached at [email protected]

Comments

Cathy Matheu
Registered user
Crescent Park
on Jun 17, 2022 at 11:36 am
Cathy Matheu, Crescent Park
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 11:36 am

Thanks, Julianne & Dave. We all need to do more to conserve water for our environment. Our household is now conserving by using drought-tolerant plants & the services of the Purple Pipe Company.


Consider Your Options.
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 17, 2022 at 12:20 pm
Consider Your Options. , Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 12:20 pm

Of course, many like me made our major water conservation improvements well before two years ago. I'm not sure how I can conserve more without killing my trees. (I have lost one already.) Check your numbers overall. How many gallons per household compared to other communities?
My only "lush" lawn is the postage stamp of grass under my city street tree in the front yard. My backyard is brown.


ChristineK
Registered user
Midtown
on Jun 17, 2022 at 12:41 pm
ChristineK, Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 12:41 pm

I think PA Utilities can do a better job informing our community of its water use. Right now if I want to know how I'm doing compared to 2019 I have to download the data and do some calculations in Excel. I think they should provide that data easily and readily to Utility customers on their website. If the goal is to be 15% below 2019, why don't they tell us where we stand in that regard? Also, I have no idea how I'm doing compared to the rest of the city. Am I a good water citizen? I don't know. I think I am, but I could be way off. The utilities used to report how I compared to others in my neighborhood (without saying who specifically) - that was useful to me.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 17, 2022 at 1:11 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 1:11 pm

CPAU tried that multiple times before, sponsoring contests and the like. It turned out their numbers were all wrong, not having a clue how many people lived in a unit, etc.
The results were so erroneous they finally gave up after maybe 5 or 6 iterations and spending lots of money.

Now they just preach conservation and then tell us rates have to rise because we didn't use enough. Again. Just this past week.

Remember this is a city that can't even produce and maintain a business registry which is one of the reasons there's all the confusion over the business tax since they claim to have no clue how many employees/commuters there are. So instead we're left wondering if retailers with large sq footage will he charged huge sums of money. Or any at all.


Douglas Moran
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jun 17, 2022 at 7:31 pm
Douglas Moran, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jun 17, 2022 at 7:31 pm

> "Eighty-five percent of our water is imported from the Tuolumne River in the central Sierra."
This is how the authors chose to state that the primary source of water for Palo Alto is the Hetch Hetchy reservoir which is part of the Tuolumne River system.


Virginia Smedberg
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 18, 2022 at 4:31 am
Virginia Smedberg, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 18, 2022 at 4:31 am

thanks, Christine K - those are things I also wish the utilities dept would make easily accessible to us - you can't make useful changes to your water use without accurate records. I, too, think I am doing pretty well, and have been over the years, I keep cutting things back. So I'd really like to know how I'm doing compared to the rest of my fellow Palo Altans.
And I don't know, maybe if someone found out they were among the top 5% of water wasters, they might decide to change something. On the other hand...


Richard
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 18, 2022 at 8:52 am
Richard, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 18, 2022 at 8:52 am

I agree that the city is useless in providing households with useful information regarding comparative use. Once we called because a comparison that appeared on our bill looked incorrect. We were told to ignore the comparison since they are inaccurate and "don't mean anything." We have no lawn, a large number of succulents, a targeted irrigation system and we collect shower and other water as it warms up. Not much more we can do it seems. The other elephant in the room is that most of the water use in CA is industrial and farming so even if houses cut back a certain percent, it is really a drop in the bucket (pun intended) regarding the overall supply. Finally the fact that prices go up because "we don't use enough" is so opposite to the usual supply and demand that something is inherently wrong with the system.


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jun 21, 2022 at 8:14 am
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on Jun 21, 2022 at 8:14 am

Have already let our small patch of water-saving native grass in the backyard die. All appliances were already water saving. Had long gone to once-weekly showers with sponge-bath and washing hair in sink in between. Don’t wear shoes in houses so rarely need to wash floors and other surfaces affected by tracked in dirt. Use hand towels rather than bath to shower, cutting laundry. Not much more we can do.

As people return to workplaces, how telling, really, are those numbers?

CA is overdue for a transparent, holistic approach. Agriculture uses a large % of water but with looming global food shortages, savings should come from efficiencies not fallow fields as much as possible. Has agriculture already eked out those efficiencies? How is CA supporting further efficiencies?

We hear drought is unprecedented on one hand but we have to build for millions of people to come here on the other. The state must take that conflict seriously. They need to put a moratorium on new building, except all-affordable projects.

The conflict of pushing growth on one hand and dealing with drought in a less short-sighted way must be addressed before residents will take the unprecedented drought as seriously as it needs.

Construction trades should be supported through any building moratoria with the state using some of it’s surplus to accelerate alternative energy adoption and water saving.

New approaches may be needed. Companies with large workforces that can work remotely might work with the state to keep some workers in non-drought-affected states.

The state must be honest, transparent, and holistic about where water usage and savings are, and be willing to put it’s money where it’s mouth is. Through the dry months, what about encouraging residential and office cistern installation so that next year, there is this new distributed water source (and how would that affect storm water systems)?

Where is the public plan? Not just vague reduction suggestions.




Anonymous
Registered user
Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jun 21, 2022 at 4:51 pm
Anonymous, Duveneck/St. Francis
Registered user
on Jun 21, 2022 at 4:51 pm

Sacramento Bee has an article (I read it on Apple News) noting personal lawns offer benefits beyond just greenery, plus ag and business interests use far more water than personal residences, apartment complexes.
“California has a drought and 4 million acres of lawns. Should state ban grass to save water?”
A long discussion ensues, there will be increased FIRE HAZARD if we have dry brown crunchy yards/gardens. Not to mention the increase in heat.
If you can access the Bee, please read this article.


Pat Markevitch
Registered user
Downtown North
on Jun 22, 2022 at 3:51 pm
Pat Markevitch, Downtown North
Registered user
on Jun 22, 2022 at 3:51 pm

The State seriously needs to reconsider the millions of people they are planning to add to the State.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 22, 2022 at 6:05 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 22, 2022 at 6:05 pm

Like Richard, we also have no lawn b/c we eliminated it a few years ago and added hardscape and drought-tolerant plants in its place. Our list of other steps taken also mirrors his. Had we waited to do this now, our "draught performance grade" would be great. But we would have used all sorts of extra water during the intervening years. Oh, well. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished.

I concur with all the remarks about population growth. Sometimes I think people look at available space and think only of the highrise that can be built, profitability, and how all those new units helps us meet ridiculous RHNA edicts, completely overlooking how population growth impacts so many of our limited resources.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 22, 2022 at 6:15 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 22, 2022 at 6:15 pm

"The State seriously needs to reconsider the millions of people they are planning to add to the State."

They should but they've refused to reconsider ANYTHING about their housing targets -- drought, fire risks, changes in population, remote workforce, the fact that MOST of their housing units are for single, well-paid techies, the fact that VERY few (under 15%) are really affordable for low or very low income...

Their arrogance and lack of common sense is mind-boggling.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 22, 2022 at 10:30 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 22, 2022 at 10:30 pm

"Their arrogance and lack of common sense is mind-boggling."

Not to mention senseless and, ultimately, destructive.


Richard
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:04 am
Richard, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:04 am

I agree about the mindless mantra that growths good. When water is limited, when inhabited areas are surrounded by fire breeding grass land or forests, when people want to preserve natural beauty why do we need or want more people? The cost of living where jobs are plentiful is high added to high income ans sales tax and for new home buyers an expensive property tax. Our roads suck; the electric grid is fragile so putting infrastructure under even more demand is senseless. When I tell my friends in other states what affordable housing costs they laugh.


Richard
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:05 am
Richard, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:05 am

I agree about the mindless mantra that growths good. When water is limited, when inhabited areas are surrounded by fire breeding grass land or forests, when people want to preserve natural beauty why do we need or want more people? The cost of living where jobs are plentiful is high added to high income ans sales tax and for new home buyers an expensive property tax. Our roads are in bad shape; the electric grid is fragile so putting infrastructure under even more demand is senseless. When I tell my friends in other states what affordable housing costs they laugh.


Richard
Registered user
Old Palo Alto
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:36 am
Richard, Old Palo Alto
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:36 am

Apologies for posting the same post twice. When I tried to post the first one i got a message that there was a problem with my post. I tried again and got the same message, so I thought maybe my phrase "our roads suck" was objectionable so I changed it to "our roads are in bad shape" and the post went through. Obviously they both went through, so just to clarify, our roads are in bad shape AND they suck. Have a nice day.


SJW
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:46 am
SJW, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2022 at 10:46 am

Water restrictions need to be mandatory and our governor needs to step up and make it so. Wishful thinking is not good enough. We all run out of water at the same time, no matter how cautious one is (or is not) with water use.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 23, 2022 at 11:11 am
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2022 at 11:11 am

Re water restrictions being mandatory, let's remember that residential usage is a mere pittance vs agricultural and commercial usage. Let's also remember that CA has done NOTHING to stop Nestle, Arrowhead and their front companies from continuing the SELL CA water while they drag out their endless appeals re their right to sell CA water in single-use plastic bottles. l

And of course the "growth is good" AND mandatory mantra is "senseless and, ultimately, destructive" but oh-so-profitable for the developers big business and the gravy train of consultants while CA adds a few million more people and tens of millions of sq footage of offices.


Annette
Registered user
College Terrace
on Jun 23, 2022 at 12:25 pm
Annette, College Terrace
Registered user
on Jun 23, 2022 at 12:25 pm

While our legislators are busying themselves restricting things, why not add restricting the sale of CA water in single-use platic bottles? If the State won't do this, PA could enact its own restriction. I doubt there's even one Palo Altan who doesn't have a cupboard full of reusable beverage bottles. Such a restriction would fit perfectly with the City's sustainability goals.


I can't breathe pollution
Registered user
Barron Park
on Jun 24, 2022 at 11:54 am
I can't breathe pollution, Barron Park
Registered user
on Jun 24, 2022 at 11:54 am

I think this is a slippery slope. Soon you'll be telling people what they can and can't eat. I'm sure restrictions on having pets would be put in place. You're already taking away the plants people need to breathe. Be careful. I think a better approach would be to limit the overall population of humans rather than micromanage their lives; make them stress about using too much


Donald
Registered user
South of Midtown
on Jun 24, 2022 at 3:01 pm
Donald, South of Midtown
Registered user
on Jun 24, 2022 at 3:01 pm

We need to stop focusing on percentage savings relative to some prior year and start focusing on absolute usage per household. Price tiers with steep increases will help motivate people to keep their usage low. The solution to the agricultural usage is also economic - farmers grow crops that will give them a profit. If they are making money using a lot of water and growing almonds, criticizing them isn't going to change anything. If their water gets more expensive and other crops are more profitable they will change what they grow. Not much Palo Alto can do about that, though.


Anneke
Registered user
Professorville
on Jun 27, 2022 at 11:35 am
Anneke, Professorville
Registered user
on Jun 27, 2022 at 11:35 am

Firstly, many excellent comments from intelligent and common-sense thinking people. Thank you.

1. The Utilities Department hides behind a veil. They are not transparent, and I personally believe, they are doing this on purpose.

2. The Utilities Department is not customer focused. Two years ago, several very slack and loose hanging electric wires in front of our and our neighbors' homes hit each other and and caused an overhead fire. Fortunately, it happened in February and not during a hot spell in the summer. The police arrived, the fire brigade arrived, and, finally, a representative of the Utilities Department came. The police closed the block for traffic. The fire caused several explosions in our and our neighbors' homes. They lost a microwave and an oven. We lost our expensive ($3,500) electric McCroskey bed. Even though the junior crew of the Utilities Department admitted that the slack wires were the cause of the fire and the damage, the Utilities Management blamed the winds and refused to consider any return of funds.

3. Yes, the Utilities' management is arrogant. Per official guidelines, tree branches cannot touch the wires; however, take a look at all the ugly magnolia trees, and see how many branches do touch the wires all over the city. The "tree manager" who came out simply denied anything to do with branches hitting electric wires. Interestingly, about three weeks after the event, the Utilities trucks came out and cut away the branches touching the wires!

4. I have been and am willing to be a good citizen, so we are very careful with water usage. Examples:
A. Saving cold shower water, shutting off the shower water between soaping.
B. Saving gray water from washing vegetables and fruits, and frequently washing our hands with Dr. Bronner's soap.
C. Yellow is mellow, brown goes down.....
D. Looking into acquiring gray water from the city or another source.

Reward us for being good water citizens, don't punish us!



Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jun 27, 2022 at 12:37 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on Jun 27, 2022 at 12:37 pm

I totally agree with Anneke about the CPAU staff. They are not helpful and NOT informed and not well-managed. In fact one of their staffers literally sent out emails under different names on different days to amuse himself -- as I learned when I asked where the promised email was! "On Tuesday's, I sent out emails as Fred but on Weds. as Sam." HUH??

While that was a minor and absurd annoyance, what was worse is A) they failed to refer me to the excellent county Waterwise Program that I learned about on NextDoor, B) they wasted a HUGE amount of time writing "lengthy but totally irrelevant responses" that didn't address the problem, and C) their very nice techies who came out admitted that no one could figure out how the water bills were computed.

Requesting rebates through their horrible computer systems is a bad joke, esp since the rebate was only a fraction of the plumber's hourly rate.


Aletheia
Registered user
Greenmeadow
on Jun 29, 2022 at 10:53 am
Aletheia, Greenmeadow
Registered user
on Jun 29, 2022 at 10:53 am

@Citizen. "once weekly showers." Ewwwwww!


Dee
Registered user
Palo Verde
on Jun 29, 2022 at 12:22 pm
Dee, Palo Verde
Registered user
on Jun 29, 2022 at 12:22 pm

Average water use in California is roughly 50% environmental, 40% agricultural, and 10% urban. Landscape watering makes up roughly half (5%) of all urban water use.
--Web Link

"9%: Perspective on the California Drought and Landscape Water Use," was a paper written by University of California Cooperative Extension researchers, Hodel and Pittenger in May 2015, while California was in the midst of the last drought. (University of California, Center for Landscape and Urban Horticulture page).
According to Hodel and Pittenger, we have been looking in all the wrong places to conserve water, and making the wrong statewide policy decisions. “Landscapes and the water they use are under relentless attack as California confronts ongoing drought. Most of these attacks are misguided when one looks at the facts, however.”
According to their research, only 9% of the total statewide use of water in California is in landscape water use, which includes our urban home lawns and gardens, parks, golf courses, sports fields, or public landscapes. They argue that if we all stopped watering our lawns and gardens, turned off the water in our arboretums, parks or sports fields, we would only save 9% of the total water used each year, which is only a drop in the statewide bucket.
They argue that “This does not seem like much when one considers the essential functions and innumerable benefits that landscape plants provide to enhance the quality of our lives and make urban areas livable." --Web Link

The focus on reducing/limiting residential and landscaping water use is ludicrous, IMHO, given the above statistics.


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