Responding to California's second year of below-average rainfall and the driest spring on record, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a proclamation in June, officially declaring that the state is facing drought conditions and calling on citizens to reduce their water consumption by 10 percent voluntarily.
While the 27 water district agencies that serve the Bay Area have reduced water usage by 13 percent, Purissima Hills Water District, which serves two-thirds of Los Altos Hills residents, has cut back its water usage only 2 percent, according to data from the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency.
In a joint effort, the water district and town officials have implemented several programs to educate and encourage residents to comply with the voluntary cutbacks. Those cutbacks may soon be mandatory.
Los Altos Hills' drinking water is supplied by California Water Service Company (Cal Water) and Purissima, which obtains its supply from San Francisco's Hetch Hetchy system.
With minimum 1-acre parcels, landscape irrigation accounts for 70 percent of residential water usage, according to former Planning Commissioner Ray Collins, also a member of the town's water conservation subcommittee. Purissima customers currently exceed their water allotment by 40 percent, Collins wrote in the town's recent quarterly newsletter.
At an elevation of 240 feet, the town can expect an average of 3.5 inches of precipitation from September through April. From June through August – zero.
The water district's customers are charged for each unit of water they use – one unit is equivalent to 748 gallons. Of Purissima's 6,400 customers, approximately 5 percent of households – about 320 customers – consumed more than 103 units of water per month. That's a staggering 77,044 gallons. Another 5 percent used 81-103 units, 15 percent used 49-80 units and 25 percent used 25-48 units. Fifty percent of households used between 0 and 24 units of water.
Truth and consequences
In December 2007, Purissima Hills' Board of Directors conducted public hearings to increase water-unit rates and establish a tiered billing system. Shucking a flat-rate, per-unit charge, the board enacted new rates that increase with water usage.
"As your use goes up, so do the rates," said Ernest Solomon, board director and vice president. "Unfortunately, we have people who aren't concerned about the costs."
Water that costs $3.75 per unit if usage is contained between 31 to 60 units jumps to $5.25 per unit for 61-100 units and to $7.25 per unit for 101-200 units of consumption.
So far, the tiered penalties haven't worked. With median household incomes of $188,800 in 2007, according to City-Data.com, the water district's customers use double the amount of water per capita than the rest of the Bay Area.
"We do know we're running about 2 percent below rather than 10 percent," Solomon said. "There should be more response to the drought proclamation."
Solomon said there's a pattern in Los Altos Hills' water consumption. Those who live in the original homes use much less – those who have rebuilt or constructed new homes use much more.
"Their water use is markedly higher, though it's not uniform," he said.
The culprits – lawns and non-native, thirsty plants.
In a semi-arid climate, Solomon said it's incumbent on residents to reconsider lawns and choose plants that don't need as much water to thrive.
"I would encourage people to think about their landscaping," he said.
Solomon said the board has no authority to impose landscaping guidelines, though directors did attempt to influence the city council to act several years ago.
"We were unsuccessful in getting that approved at that time," he said.
Mandated landscaping guidelines were unsuccessful for the town of Hillsborough, which has similar problems with water use by its residents.
"It didn't seem to reduce use the way you might hope," Solomon said.
But it's not just the water that's wasted, Solomon said. While water from Hetch Hetchy flows through pipes by gravity to San Francisco, Purissima must pay to pump it to Los Altos Hills residents.
"It's a major drain of energy in this state and locally," he said. "People need to think about that."
City Councilman Breene Kerr said state regulations are in the pipeline for all California residents to restrict water consumption.
"We will be put in the position of enforcing those mandates," Kerr said. "Essentially, they'll leave us no choice."
With large lot sizes and landscapes converted from native vegetation to rolling lawns, Kerr said water consumption has been a problem for Los Altos Hills for quite a while.
"Water conservation is not politically popular, though it's the right thing to do," he said.
Kerr said he has visited the water-depleted Folsom Dam and the once-flowing waterfalls in Yosemite Valley.
"You can see why this is becoming such a critical issue," he said.
Solomon is hoping for a wet winter to ease the district's strain.
"We'll just see how it goes," he said. "We've seen March miracles."
In the meantime, Purissima employs a conservation specialist who oversees water consumption and offers advice to help curb residents' thirst for water.
"Alexsis (Shields) is working hard with big users," Solomon said.
For more than two years, Conservation Specialist Alexsis Shields has worked with Purissima's customers, landscapers and gardeners to address water-usage issues. Shields contacts the district's highest water-users to offer advice and assess irrigation systems.
"I try not to harass our customers at all," she said. "I am hoping we can get the 10 percent cut before it becomes mandatory."
With an associate degree in environmental horticulture and working toward a bachelor's degree in water management, Shields said she is confident of her knowledge of irrigation systems and plant selection.
Shields visits concerned residents to inspect systems for water leaks, both inside and outside, is on the lookout for excessive watering that puddles into streets and walkways and works with new homeowners and their landscapers to design drought-tolerant gardens.
"I can see that they're concerned," she said.
At the town's recent community picnic, the water district offered devices for faucets that reduce water flow and a plethora of brochures for Bay-friendly gardening.
"Everybody loves freebies," Shields said. "I couldn't keep anything stocked."
A must-have for any resident with an irrigation system is a rain click. Shields said a wick at the top of the device measures precipitation and turns off a home's watering system when rainfall can replace Hetch Hetchy's crystal water, wasted on landscaping.
"I live in San Jose and the water here (in Los Altos Hills) is pristine," Shields said. "I will not drink tap water (in San Jose)."Shields said residents should be sure their gardeners are not overwatering the landscape.
"They get paid to keep it green," she said.
Maybe too green.
On a table outside Shields' office, the water district has boxes of bathroom and kitchen aerators, toilet-leak detection tablets, low-flow shower heads and brochures for xeriscape gardens and water-conservation tips, free to Purissima customers.
There are numerous rebates offered from the Santa Clara Valley Water District for water-friendly appliances that conserve a vital and diminishing resource.
"It's my calling, it's my passion," Shields said of water conservation. "I love meeting people, being outside and helping."
For a water-wise splash of color in Los Altos Hills, a plan to enclose California poppy seeds in the town's newsletter mailing began to sprout two years ago. With donations from the Cal Water and Purissima Hills water districts and the town's parks and recreation department, a 1-ounce package of poppy seeds was enclosed in the Sept. 18 newsletter.
Los Altos Hills resident Scott Vanderlip, the green thumb behind the daffodil planting project at Edith and Fremont avenues, said someone suggested he put some green-friendly thought into planting a native species flower. Vanderlip started seeing orange.
Replacing water-needy flowers with the drought-resistant and colorful California poppy made sense.
"They do better where other plants fail," Vanderlip said.
With popular participation from children in the daffodil project, the poppy project blossomed even bigger.
"I thought it'd be great for the whole community to be involved in the planting project," he said.
Vanderlip enlisted the assistance of Parks and Recreation Director Eric Christensen, whose department helped with the daffodil planting.
Christensen said when they first approached the city council with the plan, costs were prohibitive.
"They wanted us to cut the cost down to $7,500-$8,000," he said.
"It's a whole lot cheaper," Vanderlip said, as opposed to a separate mailing.
Pacific Coast Seed Co. in Livermore was instrumental in providing seeds at a reduced cost with instructions for planting.
And the seeds have arrived in Los Altos Hills at their optimum planting time – between September and November – before the winter rains arrive – if they arrive.
Poppies grow best sowed directly into dry soil that drains well, but don't sow them too deep and don't water them – that's what the rain does. Flowers should begin to bloom in spring.
Christensen said the instructions give no specifics about where exactly to plant the poppies.
"Obviously, not on your neighbor's property," he said. "The intent is to add splashes of color throughout town with the poppy."
It's also a lesson in learning about drought-resistant plants and the beauty they can add to landscapes, as opposed to rolling lawns.
But Vanderlip has a grander vision for Los Altos Hills.
On Oct. 11, town residents and nonresidents, children and families are invited to Westwind Community Barn between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to pick up poppy seeds and a pathways map with directions for planting the seeds for color along the town's trails.
But more than color, it's the sense of community that is important to Vanderlip.
"This is a scaled-up version of the daffodil project," he said. "This should get neighbors to talk, so it's a good way to connect."
For more information, contact Scott Vanderlip at 948-6455 or Eric Christensen at 941-7222. For more information about water conservation, contact Alexsis Shields at 948-1217.