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Most mornings, Randall Barron gets his start when the sun comes up. His calendar is packed, his car trunk full. Barron is one of Santa Rosa’s four “water cops” — officially, water resource specialists who patrol the city’s streets in search of water waste.

This summer, as the drought lingers on and the state’s water woes deepen, most of Barron’s time is spent traveling house to house, helping people find ways to save water.

“It all started the second Jerry Brown said the ‘D’ word,” Barron said referring to the work that began with the governor’s drought declaration in January. “I went from being able to see people in two or three days, and now it takes me a month or more to get to them.”

The backlog reflects the swelling interest among water-conscious city residents in tapping a number of programs aiming to cut household usage and save money on an increasingly scarce resource. A record number of customers have applied or inquired about Santa Rosa’s programs this year, and 1,675 homeowners are currently enrolled in a rebate program that pays residents to replace their lawns with drought-tolerant vegetation and mulches. The program pays 50 cents for each square-foot of lawn removed.

Another Santa Rosa program offers rebates for residents to install low-flow fixtures, including new faucets, shower heads and garden hose nozzles.

The voluntary efforts, which are in place in other cities across the county, are part of an evolving, two-pronged, carrot-and-stick approach to water conservation statewide. The incentives are the carrot, and that approach is set to get a boost in state funding next month, enabling local cities to launch new programs or enlarge existing ones.

On Tuesday, the state introduced the stick, with water regulators unanimously approving mandatory measures to cut outdoor water use and fines of up to $500 for violators.

The goal is to reach the 20 percent reduction target that Brown established in January when he declared drought. So far, the state isn’t anywhere near that mark, having recorded a 1 percent increase in use since the start of the year.

Officials are hoping that small changes in household water use can turn the picture around. Some residents say they recognize their role in achieving the water savings.

“I’ve already removed my sprinkler system, and I’m going to tear out my lawns and make everything drought-tolerant,” said Phillip Henderson, who met Barron outside his Bennett Valley apartment home Tuesday to get an estimate on how much he might earn by removing his lawn.

“It was important for me to acknowledge that the drought is here, it’s not just out there,” Henderson said. “This is something that I as an individual can do to help conserve water.”

Barron arrived with a car full of low-flow showerheads, hose nozzles and faucet fixtures. He used a laser instrument to measure the size of Henderson’s lawn.

“You’ll get about 514 bucks for this if you remove it,” Barron said, waving his arm over the property.

He wore a city T-shirt with a simple message on the front: “There’s drought on. Turn the water off.”

On the back it read: “Dry. The official T-shirt contest of 2014.”

California’s drought conditions — reflecting precipitation and water storage capacity — hit extreme levels last year, when state water officials declared 2013 the driest year since record keeping began more than 100 years ago.

To hit the state’s 20 percent reduction target, some cities in Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa, have beefed up patrols looking for water waste while also expanding water-saving audits and rebate programs.

Healdsburg and Cloverdale, meanwhile, have already ordered mandatory cuts to protect their supplies along the parched upper Russian River, upstream of Lake Sonoma, the region’s main reservoir. The cities are reaching out to the state, with help from the Sonoma County Water Agency, to secure new funds for residents who want to tear out their lawns or replace toilets with low-flow systems.

The Water Agency is seeking $1.4 million from the state to launch such programs within the northern half of the Sonoma County and up into Mendocino County as far as Ukiah. The funding comes from the nearly $700 million drought relief package signed by Brown in March. The state Department of Water Resources, which is overseeing the drought emergency funds, is poised to decide next week on the grant awards.

Water policy experts said this week that even modest changes can go far to help California achieve water savings, seen as increasingly important as the impacts of climate change ripple throughout the state.

“Even though agriculture accounts for 80 percent of water consumption, 20 percent is still a huge amount of water,” said Caitrin Phillips Chappelle, a drought researcher for the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan San Francisco-based think tank. “Turf buyback programs and other drought-tolerant landscaping have immediate effects. They’ll also go hand-in-hand with mandatory water restrictions, so it’s something water agencies should look at to make changes in the way we use water outside.”

Chappelle said outdoor watering comprises roughly half of the water used by residential and commercial customers in California.

“The state is looking at where it can get its biggest bang for their buck,” said Brad Sherwood, a spokesman for the county Water Agency.

If the state approves the grant funding for local agencies, the goal is to replace an estimated 3,500 toilets and remove 500,000 square-feet of lawn — nearly 10 football fields of turf. The total savings would equal roughly 50 million gallons of water.

“These are permanent long-term water savings,” Sherwood said. “You only have to install a new toilet once, and we can bank on that much water being saved.”

Cloverdale is already embarking on their drought savings plan. The city has contributed $30,000 out if its own money and is seeking $67,000 in grant funding. Residents interested in the program would need to apply with the city.

Already, Cloverdale’s efforts this year have resulted in a 40 percent reduction in water use compared to the same period last year.

“We’re going even further, investing in the most reliable savings over time,” said Craig Scott, Cloverdale’s public works director. “Fixture changes to washing machines and low-flow toilets are things that don’t require customers to change their behavior. We can count on that.”

Scott said he sees Cloverdale’s water savings as a contribution to the entire Russian River watershed.

“Regionally, we are in a pretty severe drought,” he said. “So we want to do our part.”

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@ pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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