Drops saved are drops earned

Special to The Times

The water conservation movement has your landscaping in its sights.

About 10% of Southern California's water is consumed by residents watering their gardens and lawns, according to data from the Metropolitan Water District, which supplies water to 26 cities and local water districts. About 80% is dedicated to agriculture and the rest is used by industry, commercial businesses and residences.

And though homeowners have apparently done a pretty good job of responding to measures to curb indoor water use, reducing outdoor use will be a pricier and more labor-intensive project with harder-to-come-by rebates.

But an anticipated shortage in the water supply means cities and water districts have to find additional ways to conserve, whether through stringent rules set by cities such as Long Beach and Irvine, or through voluntary measures like the "20-gallon challenge" that Santa Monica, Burbank, Pasadena and other cities have made, asking customers to cut use by 20 gallons per day.

It's clear that the public has responded to the challenge of using less water indoors: Millions of toilets have been exchanged and thousands of washing machines and dishwashers replaced with systems that require less water. Fewer consumers leave the water running when they brush their teeth.

Now the push is on to persuade Southern Californians to save water outside their homes -- and it's a challenge that may require them to make a greater financial investment.

Long Beach has forbidden using hoses to wash off patios, driveways, sidewalks and parking areas unless the hose has a certified water conserving nozzle; a regular on-off nozzle doesn't qualify. Residents are allowed to water on Monday, Thursday and Saturday, and "inefficient" sprinkler systems -- those that over-spray, soak sidewalks or apply too much water -- also are forbidden.

Going after violators

The city is enforcing the rules, according to Ryan Alsop, a spokesman for Long Beach Water, with help from the community. Residents may e-mail or call a hotline to report over-watering scofflaws. The city then sends a letter to the property owner. If there's a second complaint, the city will send an inspector to document the offense and re-contact the owner. Upon a third complaint, fines are levied, although the water board hasn't set the amounts, nor has it needed to, yet.

Solutions for water wasted in landscaping -- between 50% and 70% of the water used in Los Angeles County is outdoor use, according to Alsop -- can include tweaking sprinkler systems to be as efficient as possible, planting less-thirsty plants or replacing the grass with artificial turf.

The Metropolitan Water District will pay 30 cents per square foot of artificial turf for street medians and multifamily residences, as will the Municipal Water District of Orange County and other water agencies.

While washing machine and toilet rebates still are available, the Metropolitan Water District and its clients are actively promoting a slew of rebates for landscaping conservation measures -- bigger and more expensive projects than swapping out a toilet.

"It's pretty clear the next step is going to be harder to implement," said Lynn Lipinski, program manager for conservation outreach at the district. "You have to look at landscape and irrigation, and make changes where it's a good idea."

A 'smart' idea

Homeowners can get rebates of up to $350 to replace an existing sprinkler controller with one that has a weather sensor that shuts the system off when it senses rain is coming soon. James Kent of Glendora installed one of the so-called smart sprinkler systems this year.

A self-described do-it-yourselfer, he said putting the new timer on his water system was worth the effort.

"It's based on humidity," Kent said. "Once in a while it says it's going to rain and then it doesn't, but for the most part, it works pretty well."

Kent received his timer at a give-away event. The units start at $40.

Most water districts offer both online and in-person help to figure out when and how much to water grass, and many consumers find out they're wasting water.

"We regularly see landscapes where people apply 7 to 9 feet of water a year, when the landscape . . . needs 5 feet," said Tim Blair, the Metropolitan Water District's program manager for water use efficiency. He added that consumers can visit BeWaterWise.com, to calculate how much water they should be using and how often.

Water districts also are encouraging homeowners to start looking at drought-tolerant plants -- a process now known as making your yard "California-friendly."

The green gauge

Water districts and departments, including the city of Santa Monica, have set up test landscapes in heavily traveled areas where they install a drought-tolerant landscape next to a lawn, then measure labor, green waste and water use for two years.

The two test bungalows on Pearl Street yielded even better results than expected, according to Kim O'Cain, spokeswoman for the Santa Monica Environmental Programs Division.

"The California-friendly landscape uses 90% less water, creates half the yard waste and takes about half the work of lawn, once the plants are established," she said.

But surrendering lawn to a green, low-water landscape is harder work than changing a shower head.

The Santa Monica water district hired a professional landscape architect and gardeners to install the designs, work that costs at least $4,000 to start. The designs take time to establish and can look ragged during their first months.

And people are resistant to it, according to University of Michigan landscape architecture professor Joan Nassauer, a pioneer in the public acceptance of alternate landscaping.

"People love order. It's why they love mowed lawns," Nassauer said.

But, she added, good design can trump mowing.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Some easy ways to stop wasting

Check sprinkler systems regularly for leaks, broken and misdirected heads.

Water when it's cool -- evenings, overnight and early mornings -- to reduce water loss through evaporation.

Calculate the length of time and frequency for watering on BeWaterWise.com.

Change the frequency of watering with the season -- lawns need more water in the summer than winter.

Turn sprinklers off for a few days when it has rained.

-- Marty Graham

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