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.