North Coast residents outpace Southern Californians in water conservation

North Coast residents continue to outpace the rest of the state in water conservation, with the state’s driest and most populous region, Southern California, lagging far behind. Billions of dollars have been spent to close that conservation gap, but Southern Californians could still do more, officials say.|

Marianne Neufeld marveled at the dwarf sweet pea bushes, which have doubled in size since she planted them last summer in front of her Oakmont home.

“They do very well in clay soil,” she said, surveying the drought-tolerant landscaping she’d installed in August, displacing the lawn that covered her front and back yards. At the time, Gov. Jerry Brown had called a state of emergency with 17 wildfires raging in drought-ravaged California, and Neufeld, an avid gardener, decided it was her moment to begin seriously conserving water.

She loves the look of the evergreen grass and shrubs now thriving in her drip-irrigated yard, and she enjoyed the payoff, too: a $100-a-month savings on her city water bill, cut in half by the conversion to so-called xeriscaping.

“Oakmont is very conscientious,” said Neufeld, who serves on the adult community’s architectural committee and estimates that about 300 of her neighbors have also ripped out their water-thirsty lawns.

The efforts helped Santa Rosa, along with five other North Bay communities, win recognition from the state Water Resources Control Board for “noteworthy conservation achievement” by continuing to curb personal water use in the face of a drought now entering its fourth year.

The water board’s latest report, documenting conservation efforts - or lack thereof - by nearly 400 cities and water agencies in November, also highlighted a disparity between Northern and Southern California, long at odds over style, substance, sports rivalries and now sensible water consumption.

Residents of the North Coast hydrologic region, which stretches from the Russian River Basin in Sonoma County to the Oregon border, used an average of 59.4 gallons of water a day in November - the lowest of all 10 regions in the state - and recorded a 19.5 percent reduction in water consumption from November 2013.

Folks in the South Coast region, which runs from Los Angeles to San Diego and accounts for 56 percent of all residential water customers, used 91.7 gallons per day and achieved a meager 3.2 percent year-over reduction.

Water regulators have long known that Southern California lags Northern California when it comes to water conservation. The state started releasing monthly water consumption totals for cities and water districts with more than 3,000 customers in July “so people can see what their neighbors are doing,” said Felicia Marcus, the state water board chairwoman.

While it’s unfair to slap all of Southern California with a water-wasting brush, officials say, the numbers show that more needs to be done to cut down on excessive water use in the state’s most populous region.

“I do think they need to step it up,” Marcus said. Some communities have “done a lot, and there are others who are just waking up. Hoping that it’s going to rain is not a strategy.”

Billions of dollars have been spent in the southland on conservation, helping San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles consumers to cut their use in recent years. Orange County, for example, is a national leader in use of recycled water, and efforts in San Diego have lowered residents’ average daily water use to 65.5 gallons.

The giant Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which serves 3.9 million customers, lowered daily personal water use to an average 77.13 gallons in November, a 6.9 percent improvement over the year.

“That’s pretty good,” Marcus said. “They can do a lot more.”

Of the 20 cities and water agencies with the highest per-capita water consumption statewide, 14 were in the South Coast region, with rates ranging from about 200 gallons to nearly 500 gallons per day. Statewide average water use was 88.97 gallons a day in November.

Local water officials weren’t inclined to call out the regional contrast in water use, or lob any criticism, preferring instead to highlight efforts in their own jurisdictions.

“I can’t speak to what’s occurring in other cities,” said Jennifer Burke, Santa Rosa’s deputy director of water and engineering services.

Santa Rosa’s 170,000 water customers are making “truly impressive” efforts to curb outdoor irrigation, she said, noting that drought-tolerant plants need about one-third as much water as green grass.

Santa Rosans’ average use of 48.52 gallons a day in November was the 21st-lowest rate in the state.

The hotter weather down south and the need to irrigate landscaping to keep it alive are twin factors pushing Southern California’s higher average personal water use, officials say. Overall, outdoor residential water use, primarily landscape irrigation, accounts for 34 percent of urban water use in the state, vastly exceeding commercial, institutional and industrial water consumption.

Also, Southern Californians live hundreds of miles from their major water sources, including the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Owens Valley and the Colorado River, Marcus said. That means they don’t regularly see the diminishing effect drought has on those sources.

“People tend to think water is something that comes out of a tap,” Marcus said.

Getting out the conservation message in bustling Southern California media markets is difficult, said Marcus, a former president of the Los Angeles Board of Public Works.

North Coast residents are “much more connected” to their water, she said, noting that Sonoma County residents saw repeated newspaper photographs last year of “disastrously low” Lake Mendocino near Ukiah, one of two reservoirs that impound Russian River water for delivery to 600,000 North Bay customers.

Overall, California posted a 9.8 percent conservation gain in November, as personal use fell to 88.97 gallons per day, down from 98.79 gallons in the same month of 2013.

From June through November, the state has saved more than 105 billion gallons of water over the same six months in 2013, the water board said. That’s enough to supply 1.37 million Californians for a year.

California’s performance standard for indoor-only water use is 55 gallons a day per person, and both Santa Rosa (48.52 gallons) and Windsor (53.45) came in under that mark in November, when outdoor irrigation tends to taper off.

All eight cities and water districts in Sonoma County beat the 88.97-gallon state average for personal water use, while posting double-digit year-over conservation savings ranging from 17 percent to 30 percent. Joining Santa Rosa on a list of 20 noteworthy cities and agencies - with daily use less than 70 gallons and year-over conservation of more than 20 percent - were Rohnert Park, Windsor, Napa, and the Valley of the Moon and North Marin water districts.

Santa Rosans have taken advantage of city programs that pay residents to replace their lawns and install rainwater storage equipment. The city pays 25 cents per gallon for systems that capture at least at least 100 gallons of rainwater, and to date 23 rebates have been paid for total storage of 54,801 gallons, officials said.

Valley of the Moon Water District’s 23,000 customers used 59.38 gallons per person in November, achieving a 33.5 percent drop from the 89.3 gallons a year ago. Residents are “doing exactly what we asked them to do,” said Dan Muelrath, the district’s general manager.

“People really felt it (the drought) was real” last year, he said, taking a cue from the valley’s creeks drying up. A year earlier in 2013, many continued to irrigate their lawns as usual “in hopes it would rain,” Muelrath said, and now some are letting their lawns go brown.

North Marin Water District, which serves 61,000 people in the Novato area, recorded a whopping 39.3 percent conservation mark in November, whittling use down to 61.97 gallons per person, down from 102.09 gallons a year ago. The district pays up to up to $400 for removal of the lawn around a single-family home.

Drought awareness triggered the transformation of Oakmont, the 55-and-older community on Santa Rosa’s eastern flank, resident Marianne Neufeld said. When she and her husband, David, moved in 10 years ago, the development’s winding streets were lined with virtually nonstop tidy lawns. Now, mulch and gravel-covered yards, studded with vegetation suited for California’s semi-arid climate, dot the Oakmont landscape.

Jane DeYoung, who stripped every blade of grass from her yard two years ago, said her low-thirst plants are “very spectacular in spring and summer.” The only time she misses grass is when her grandchildren visit from San Francisco and there’s no soft place for them to play.

And while she’s free of weekly mowing chores, DeYoung said xeriscaping is not labor-free.

“I still have plants to trim, weeds to pull,” she said, plucking a few unwanted green sprigs from the small stones at her feet.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or On Twitter @guykovner.

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