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Meet the Healdsburg woman preaching the drought gospel

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

The plants in Brigette Mansell’s front yard in Healdsburg have managed to stay green so far this summer, but she doesn’t dare use tap water to keep them alive.

Instead, her Japanese maple tree and vegetable garden are watered by a 550-gallon tank on the edge of her property filled with treated wastewater delivered by a city truck, a new service provided by Healdsburg in response to the drought.

A recycled water lawn sign is displayed in front of the tank to inform neighbors it is for landscape-only use.

“As we go deeper into the summer, you have to evaluate and prioritize what you can save,” Mansell, 60, former Healdsburg mayor, said of her plants.

Drought is not new to Sonoma County, where a drought emergency was declared on April 27 and where many residents are water conscious.

Water watch

Water evangelists like Mansell go the extra mile to save water through recycled water initiatives and spreading the word on water-saving tips to friends and neighbors.

“We've been told by Sonoma Water that this is rivaling the 1976-77 drought, which was the driest year on record,” said Peter Marin, deputy director of water resources at Santa Rosa Water. “The water levels are very low at Lake Sonoma.”

Municipalities and water agencies have asked residents across the North Bay to reduce water usage.

Cutting back shower times, installing grey water systems, fixing leaks and having low-water landscaping are all small ways to make a big difference, Marin said.

“We do love our super savers,” he said.

Mansell tracks her water usage and last winter fixed a leak by her house after she noticed a significant spike in how much water was being used.

She’s now decreased her usage to about 51 gallons per day, which includes her tenant’s usage, too.

“I’m proud of our water usage,” she said.

Mansell spent about $700 at Harmony Farm Supply in Sebastopol for her tank, and she shares the recycled water with neighbors.

The water can’t be dumped into the Russian River, so it’s generally used for agriculture and landscaping.

“Water is baptismal. It’s emotionally cleansing. Water in a spiritual sense is literally refreshing, but also, psychologically, it just shifts me,” Brigette Mansell said. “Whether it’s putting my feet in the Russian River, as shallow as it is, or taking a quick shower, water keeps me grounded to the earth.”

There’s no irrigation in her yard, and she hooks a hose up to the tank to hand water small plants.

“I do think it’s going to make a difference in keeping my plants alive this summer, so I’m willing to invest in the tank to be able to have this water,” Mansell said.

‘Once it is gone, it is gone’

Mansell spent four years on the Healdsburg City Council, which she said was an education in itself about the city’s water system and resources.

She recently retired as an English teacher who spent 38 years at Santa Rosa City Schools, and the importance of water even made it into her classroom through literature.

“Water is baptismal. It’s emotionally cleansing. Water in a spiritual sense is literally refreshing, but also, psychologically, it just shifts me,” said Mansell. “Whether it’s putting my feet in the Russian River, as shallow as it is, or taking a quick shower, water keeps me grounded to the earth.”

She gave birth to her twins in water and noted how trips to the Sonoma Coast can be spiritually satisfying.

Ultimately, she has deep respect for water as a resource — her Facebook photo is a baseball cap she altered to say: “Healdsburg, the drought is here, save water. Once it is gone, it is gone!”

Mansell volunteered on June 12 with Sonoma Water employees to hand out drought kits at the Healdsburg Community Center. She wore the agency’s “Drought is here” T-shirt and explained the kits to anyone with questions.

“Her energy was on point all day and helped to keep the place buzzing all day, right down to the last car coming through to pick up a kit. She rocks!” Kris Loomis, senior program specialist in Sonoma Water’s water use efficiency department, said of Mansell.

Tough times and drought kits

The free drought kits contain white buckets, a five-minute shower timer, a low-flow shower head and a self-closing garden hose nozzle. Loomis said she was impressed by Mansell’s ability to “send the message in numerous directions simultaneously.”

“She walks the walk with her own water-efficient practices and shares her ideas and resources with her neighbors, friends and strangers,” Loomis said. “Brigette is a firecracker personality and is a water conservation cheer squad leader.”

About 10,000 drought kits were distributed across Sonoma and Marin counties on June 12, according to Sonoma Water.

"The volunteer party was so fun because there's people that just say, hey I want to help anyone that needs help with water saving. Let me help you. I'll make a video of what I've done and I'll help them, give them my email. You know, that kind of thing," Mansell said. “We don't need any more naysayers. We need people that are willing to help people change habits, little by little.”

Mansell, last month, gathered a group of community members under a century-old Valley oak tree on her property to discuss water saving.

“Our purpose was livability, not profitability. Water should be for life, it shouldn't be for profit,” Mansell said.

One attendee was Dr. BJ Fogg, bestselling author of “Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Changes Everything,” who helped facilitate the conversation.

Working together

The group generated 40 ideas for the community to mitigate the water crisis, and Mansell recently posted the top 10 online and in local media.

No. 10: “To achieve water equity, utility users, households, should be aiming for a number of gallons per day per person and not an overall reduction of 20 percent.”

No. 9 may garner more controversy: “The city must halt ALL water hook-ups on non-essential development. Tough times call for it.”

She has started a petition for that cause and has a water analogy to explain why she believes that measure is needed.

“We need to do that because we are tapped out here,” she said.

Mansell also works online to reach the community on her crusade to save water.

She started a Facebook page called Healdsburg Water Wise Volunteer Page, and she posts YouTube videos with water saving tips and drought information.

“We’re in this together, we have to work together,” Mansell said.

Insight: Drought

This story is part of a new quarterly special section at The Press Democrat focusing on stories and issues of community-wide importance. This edition, publishing in print on June 27, is focusing on how the drought is affecting our everyday lives. Read all the stories here.

For more stories on drought, go here.

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