Despite a spate of welcome rain within the last month that greened up brittle landscapes, water consumers are cautioned to not get complacent. We're still in a drought.

"We need a good six inches before we reach 1978 rainfall totals," said Sonoma County Water Agency spokesman Brad Sherwood, comparing this year's lowest rainfall record with the severe drought of the 1970s.

"I think drought conditions most likely are going to continue throughout the year, and we'll see more conservation requirements kick in by cities as we get closer to summer and secure our final rainfall totals."

Residents of Cloverdale already face mandatory cuts of 25 percent and Healdsburg residents have been told the goal is to cut water consumption by 20 percent. Other cities like Windsor have asked residents to voluntarily cut back by 20 percent.

So where do you start?

Sherwood said the biggest thing people can do now, while their irrigation systems are turned off, is to check their water meter.

"Go out to your water meter and become familiar with it and see if you have any leaks inside your house," he said. Temporally turn off the water to the house and then watch the meter. If it is still running, it means there is a leak somewhere that you should get fixed.

By fixing leaky faucets you can save 15 to 20 gallons a day. Fix a leaky toilet and you can save 30 to 50 gallons a day.

Replace an old toilet that uses up to six gallons per flush and you can save a huge amount of water without resorting to the old "if it's yellow, let it mellow" mantra of the past. New water-efficient toilets use only 1.28 gallons. And there are even ultra high-efficiency toilets that use only .8 gallons per flush, said Kimberly Zunino, water resources sustainability manager for the city of Santa Rosa.

Residents within a number of sanitation districts - Occidental, Russian River County, Airport/Larkfield/Wikiup, Geyserville, Penngrove, Sea Ranch and Sonoma Valley who have older toilets that use 3.5 gallons or more per flush may quality for a free toilet replacement under the Direct Install Program (Call 547-1918) for details or to get on a waiting list. The program includes not only a free toilet but free installation as well as low-flow faucet aerators and showerheads.

There are also rebates available of up to $150 in those districts for replacing standard 1.6-gallon low-flush toilets with an ultra low-flush model. These pressure-assisted toilets have a sealed vessel inside the tank that compresses a pocket of air inside as the water fills. When the toilet is flushed, the pressurized air forces the water rapidly into the bowl, creating a powerful, fast flush that has a "whoosh" sound. If you can tolerate the noise, you'll be rewarded when your bill comes.

If you're thinking of buying a new washing machine, now may be the time. You can get up to $125 back on a new high-efficiency clothes washer that can use 40 to 60 percent less water and energy than older, top-loading clothes washers. The machines use only 18 to 25 gallons of water per load compared to 50 or more for top-loading models. Check scwa.org for information about which areas of the county qualify.

Those changes get you a big bang for your water buck. But there are many other ways savvy consumers can cut down their water use without suffering.

The city of Santa Rosa Water Utilities Department offers these suggestions:

Don't leave the water running while brushing your teeth or hand-washing dishes. Savings? Nine to 14 gallons a day.

Turn on the washing machine and dishwasher only with a full load for a savings of 14 to 48 gallons a day.

Simply by throwing paper waste in the garbage rather than flushing it down the toilet you can save 2 gallons.

Sweep your decks and driveways rather than hosing them down for a savings of 8 to 18 gallons per day.

Install high-efficiency aerators and showerheads (offered free through the city and the Sonoma County Water Agency" for a savings of 4.7 gallons daily.

Save 10 gallons by shortening your showers.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.