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An innovative water conservation program in Windsor is off to a promising start, drawing attention for saving millions of gallons while creating an immediate drop in residents' utility bills.

More than 300 residential customers have enrolled in the fledgling program, which is being touted as a model that could take off in other communities.

It allows residents to install devices such as low-flow toilets and showerheads, or to replace their water-guzzling lawns with drought-resistant plants, with no upfront costs or taking on debt.

Financed by the town, homeowners and renters pay for the upgrades over five to 15 years with a small surcharge on their utility bill.

The town guarantees the savings on the water bill will exceed monthly surcharges.

"The results are good. People are actually reducing usage and seeing savings," said Paul Piazza, Windsor's water conservation program coordinator.

Participating residents who are beginning to see a drop in their bills "get so excited," said Town Councilwoman Debora Fudge. "I would use the word 'ecstatic.'"

Fudge was in the majority of the 3-2 council vote that narrowly authorized the program last year. It's coming up again on Wednesday for a Town Council review of the pilot program.

Although individual household savings vary widely based on usage and the measures installed, officials say participants in the Windsor Efficiency PAYS, or Pay As You Save program, are saving an average of about $30 on their bi-monthly utility bills — after factoring in the surcharge.

So far it's amounted to approximately 10,000 gallons in water savings per household per year, or about three million gallons a year among all current participants.

But about half those currently participating are apartment dwellers. Households of three or more that install landscape measures stand to benefit the most.

The turf replacement part of the program is just beginning to gain momentum, as the weather turns drier and people sign up to avoid summer irrigation.

If a family decides to rip out their lawn, the water savings can amount to an additional 30,000 gallons per house per year.

Windsor plans to expand the PAYS program to as many as 2,000 households, or one-quarter of the town's households, saving more than 30 million gallons annually as outdoor and indoor water uses are curtailed.

Officials say it can help avoid having to develop other water sources to handle droughts and growth.

"That saves the potential of drilling another well," Fudge said.

The Windsor program was part of an initiative overseen by the Sonoma County Regional Climate Protection Authority and financed with a three-year, $650,000 federal grant to get Sonoma County cities to participate.

But so far, Windsor is the only one to commit.

"The Windsor program has gotten recognition at the state and national level. And now the region is looking to expand," said Lauren Casey, climate protection program manager, who said outreach is under way to get more Bay Area communities to launch their own versions of PAYS.

She said municipal utilities can be reticent because of rate and billing restructuring required and the staff time involved.

Windsor transferred $4 million from its water and wastewater reserves to fund the program and pay for the water and energy conservation measures installed in homes.

Participating residents are responsible for a "program activity charge," the equivalent of 7 percent of the total installed cost, paid over a number of years.

That helps stabilize water and water reclamation revenues so nonparticipants don't experience large rate increases. It also is intended to offset the loss of revenue from water sales as customers conserve more.

If a resident moves, the next resident takes over paying the surcharge, but also enjoys the utility bill savings provided by the conservation measures.

Customers can choose to take with them appliances they may have purchased through the program — such as a clothes washer or refrigerator — and pay off the remaining surcharge payments.

Joanne Boucher, a teacher's assistant, saw her bill drop dramatically after she had low-flush toilets, more efficient showerheads and faucets installed in her Windsor home in November.

Her two-month combined water and sewer bill went from the usual $220, down to $119, a savings of $101.

"I was very pleased," said the mother of three teenagers.

"I think it's a wonderful program. I've told all my friends about it," she said. "I save $50 a month. When you're on your own with three kids, it's quite a significant saving."

Town officials say her bill apparently did not include a surcharge that will get tacked on to pay for the new toilets and other improvements, but her overall savings will still be greater because of less water used in her home.

Piazza said indoor water use can drop significantly with the newer versions of toilets that use half the amount of water of the older, 1.6 gallon, low-flush models.

Getting rid of a lawn can produce a big drop in the water bill, according to the contractor who is working with Windsor on the turf replacement program.

"On a typical conversion that we do, they probably save from $10 to $50 a month," said Bill Richardson, project manager for Sonoma Mountain Landscape.

Not only do residents conserve water, but they no longer have to deal with lawn fertilizers, pesticide and maintenance, he said.

One of the biggest misconceptions people have, according to Richardson, is that the drought-tolerant plants that replace the grass will make their yards look like a desert landscape. But the blooming plants can be colorful and appealing.

Richardson said at a minimum, participants in the program need to have 300 square feet or more of lawn that they want removed.

But there is still resistance to removing those green lawns. Some families, especially with younger children, like the grass as a play area. "They can kick a ball around," he said.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

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