Water conservation a way of life for Healdsburg family

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It’s rare to see someone regard a household fixture with the kind of absorption, let alone enthusiasm, that Don McEnhill exhibits while endorsing lever-handle faucets like the one at his kitchen sink in Healdsburg.

But then McEnhill, guardian of the Russian River watershed through the Russian Riverkeeper program, has an especially heightened relationship with water, and anything that helps him avoid wasting it merits his praise.

Take the kitchen faucet: Its one-touch, on-off capability means a person washing his or her hands can soap up with the water off and easily flip it back on to rinse — a move that’s too difficult with slippery hands and twisty faucet knobs.

“With double twisters, you’re going to use more water every time,” McEnhill said earnestly, moving on to the bathroom and the tiny shut-off valve on his low-flow shower that allows him to reduce the flow to a trickle while he shampoos and lathers.

On the floor nearby, a partly filled 2½-gallon bucket held water collected earlier in the day while the shower was warming up. A plastic pitcher stood nearby, one of more than a half-dozen basins and receptacles scattered through the house to harvest water that might otherwise go to waste. Instead it will be used to water the plants, rinse dishes or flush the toilet.

McEnhill — and by extension his wife, Vicky, and twins Jack and Emma, 13 — has turned water conservation into a way of life, moving well beyond what most Californians have managed in the way of household efficiency, for an extended period of time.

A recent report out of the State Water Resources Control Board shows Californians are finally getting serious about water conservation. Under orders since April 1 to reduce water use by 25 percent compared with 2013, urban residents cut domestic consumption by nearly 29 percent in May, compared to the same month in 2013.

But until now, many have demonstrated little effort to reduce water use, despite an ongoing drought now in its fourth year.

Though the numbers are highly variable house-to-house and city-to-city, state residents got their water use down to an average of 87.5 gallons per person, per day in May, the state board said.

In Sonoma County, residents consumed an average 75 gallons per day, with a low of 52.4 in Rohnert Park and a high of 108.9 in Sonoma.

State water officials say Californians should be using no more than 55 gallons per person, per day indoors.

By comparison, the McEnhills have used an average of 47 gallons total per person, per day over the past 12 months, with a high just under 57 gallons in January. Don McEnhill, 52, said he doubts his family has ever used much more than 70 gallons per person, per day over the past 15 years.

“We use every trick in the book,” he said. “Every time we turn on the faucet, we think, ‘Do I need it on this high? Do I need it this long?’ ”

It helps that his family’s Healdsburg home, nestled amid live oaks and other woodland species above a seasonal creekbed near Tayman Park Golf Course, has next to no landscaping or lawn to water. State officials estimate that, on average, half of Californians’ residential water is used for outdoor irrigation.

And there are sufficient variations in the way per capita water use is calculated that it’s an imperfect measure of water conservation, in any case, he said.

In Santa Rosa, for instance, monthly household water use is measured by each thousand gallons consumed, so a family using 1,010 and another using 1,990 appear to have the same daily consumption for the month, municipal personnel said.

Figures used by the state to calculate a community’s per capita consumption also are somewhat misleading, in that they’re based on how much water is purchased by the city, said Jennifer Burke, deputy director of water and engineering resources. There’s also no distinction between single-family homes and multi-unit dwellings when the city’s residential customer base is counted, she said.

McEnhill said he feels called to lead by example, given his public role as Russian Riverkeeper, and does whatever is possible to conserve and educate on the topic.

“The river’s one of the most important things to me in this community, as far as natural resources,” he said. “And also, I’m a competitive guy. I’ve already been through a very severe drought in the ’70s, and I like to think — when the call do something for the public good is out there — I like to respond enthusiastically and do as much or more than the next person.”

Appointed in 2001 to serve as Russian Riverkeeper, McEnhill is the public face of a nonprofit, environmental watchdog group that protects and advocates for the watershed in partnership with the international Waterkeeper Alliance.

His stewardship work means he’s often slogging through chilly currents or out on patrol in a canoe or small boat, providing a level of intimacy with the region’s primary water source few others enjoy.

He has high expectations for how the river and the watershed should be treated, as well as the water supply. In their spacious, multilevel home, he and his family are working hard to see that none of it goes to waste.

They run the dishwasher and washing machine only when they’re full.

They save the water that’s used to wash fruits and vegetables, collect what runs from the tap while the water warms up, filter soapy water through organic compost and into a drain path that feeds water to a lemon tree.

They keep lightly used paper towels, tissues and scrap paper on hand to scrape food off the plates before they go in the dishwasher and use harvested water or remnants from dish-washing to soak other, crusty or greasy dishes.

In the winter, rain that drains from the roof into the gutters is collected in barrels.

Even ice from a big July Fourth party was melted in buckets for use in watering plants.

“It’s a lot of little things that just add up,” McEnhill said.

His family shares his interest in protecting the environment — in a recent interview, the twins chided each other over who took longer showers — but they and their father concede he leads the charge and is the household’s short-shower enforcer.

McEnhill said he checks himself from time to time to make sure he’s not pushing too hard.

But the kids, who are headed into eighth grade and have household chores that include things like kitchen work and laundry, seem perfectly content to embrace family policies that have to do with running the laundry only when there’s a full load, rewearing gently worn clothes before washing or using harvested water to fill the dog bowls.

Emma McEnhill said they’ve lived a waterwise existence long enough that she and her brother are used to it.

Jack McEnhill said it feels “like we’re doing a lot more than normal people are doing.”

But he also acknowledged they’re often simple things that don’t exact much of a toll and that make sense, given the critical resource at stake.

“There are so many small things you can do,” Jack McEnhill said. “It’s not going to hurt you at all, so just do it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

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