Driving Up To Save Water

In drought-ravaged northern California, Santa Rosa Water staff members take to the streets to spread the word about the need for water conservation.
Driving Up To Save Water
Giving water-saving tips to three visitors are, starting from far left, Deb Lane, water resources analyst; Dan Galvin, chairman of the Board of Public Utilities; and Pam Lorence, water resources specialist.

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Drive-ups usually mean hamburgers, french fries and chocolate shakes. But in Santa Rosa, Calif., a playful spin on the concept made it convenient for residents to embrace water conservation in a region that’s fighting serious drought.

The Drought Drive-Up campaign by Santa Rosa Water promotes conservation by stressing the value of water. Working with the Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership and the Sonoma County Water Agency, Santa Rosa hosted four Drought Drive-Up locations on April 23.

Residents walked, biked, rode the bus or drove to the locations to build customized drought toolkits. Each location was staffed by a team of local officials and water and wastewater department staff, who offered drought tips and free high-efficiency showerheads, aerators, shower buckets, dye tabs and shower timers. Visitors were also entered to win a high-efficiency washing machine or toilet.

“The event exceeded our expectations, as more than 3,000 residents took part,” says Kimberly Zunino, water-use efficiency coordinator. “Some picked up partial kits, but most got full kits. The high-efficiency showerheads were especially popular. People were truly inquisitive, engaged and grateful for an opportunity to help extend our water supply.”

The event got so busy that, at times, staff had trouble keeping items in stock, particularly the showerheads. “It was our first time doing something like this, so the community took a bit of a risk,” says Zunino. “Fortunately, I believe it really paid off. It was a huge effort, but seeing all the engaged people was worth it.”

Tapped supply

Santa Rosa gets most of its water from Lake Sonoma, where reservoir capacity sat at 75.8 percent as of early May. However, Lake Mendocino, which supplies the smaller communities upriver from Santa Rosa, was at 48.2 percent of capacity.

Zunino says that although the water supply situation wasn’t dire, residents still needed to conserve: “We were trying to convey that we were starting at water levels where they would normally be at the end of the peak water-use season. The more community members we can get to understand that, the better off we’ll be.”

Residents are conserving already but not yet at the 20 percent reduction goal set by Gov. Jerry Brown in declaring a statewide drought emergency. The most recent numbers show Santa Rosa using about 15 percent less water than a year ago. But there’s also a tendency, especially when it rains, for what Zunino calls “amnesia” — people just forget that 2013 was one of the driest years on record.

“We are trying to drive home the point that conserving water is not only for dry times,” she says. “It’s really a habit that our residents need to get used to all year. That’s why we are constantly reaching out to our customers.”

As summer begins and folks turn their attention to gardens and lawns and home improvements, the department offers water-wise landscaping and gardening tips along with equipment residents can install to reduce consumption.

The department also hosts seminars on water-use management. The latest, on land use in drought conditions, filled up quickly. “We had a waiting list of 38 community members, which was so awesome to see,” says Zunino. “The people here want to learn about this. As long as that interest continues, we’re going to keep offering programming.”

The city government has also taken steps to save water. Every toilet in city buildings has been replaced with a low-flow version, and the city offers rebates to citizens who replace their toilets with more efficient models.

“We have also sent out direct mailers, gone on the radio, visited community groups and civic organizations, and given weekly updates on our water situation at council meetings,” says Zunino. “Our rainfall this year is what we have to work with and manage for the remainder of the year. It’s an ongoing challenge.”

Community support

Zunino is pleased with how the community responded to the outreach. “We have seen a total water savings of 1.4 billion gallons per year in our community since we instituted our drought programs,” she says. “That tells me the message is hitting home. The people here are placing a high value on their water supply.

“Running these programs is actually less expensive to the community’s bottom line than buying water. This drought encompasses a huge area of the country, so the price of water increases as demand increases.

“We are so fortunate that the community is buying into the idea that efficient water use is a big deal. In the past we would ramp up our outreach when water supplies would reach alarming levels, but we are now looking for water-use efficiency at all times. Not only does that prepare citizens for drought conditions, it saves money and hopefully helps keep the extreme water deficiencies to a minimum.”

By saving so much water, the community has been able to negate wholesale water rate cost increases. “We operate knowing that we likely won’t see an increase in our allotted supply,” Zunino says. “If we can stay within our water use limits, the rates will stay palatable for our citizens, and we won’t have to allot funding toward additional infrastructure. Operating lean definitely makes sense, even when we no longer have to deal with drought conditions.”   


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