Natural Perspectives: Do your part to solve water crisis

Last fall, the weather experts predicted that we would have a La Niña winter this year. That meant it would be relatively dry. Then in December, the sky dumped half our annual rainfall on us all at once. Vic and I began to doubt the La Niña forecasts. But now with about a half an inch of rain for January and none forecasted for the immediate future, things really are looking dry.

La Niña generally means rain in the Southern Hemisphere. Right now, it's raining dingoes and Tasmanian tigers in Australia. Well, not quite. The Tasmanian tiger went extinct in the 1930s. But you get the idea.

Last month, Queensland experienced its wettest December on record, and last year was the third wettest year for Australia as a whole. Not coincidently, the ocean off Queensland was the warmest that it has ever been. Warm oceans generally mean more rainfall along the coast.

One consequence of La Niña is a dry winter for us in the Americas. Vic and I set up a system of rain barrels last fall to store water. In addition to the rain barrels, we set some 20-gallon Rubbermaid trash containers under eaves to catch even more rainfall. Our water storage system filled up with the first few days of rain in early December. The rest overflowed onto the ground, lost to our future use. I'll be dipping into those containers to water my vegetable garden and fruit trees over the next few months, assuming the water lasts that long.

We don't have an automatic irrigation system. Instead, we have a "smart manual system." It's really very simple. I check the soil to see if it's dry. If it is, I add water. Pretty smart.

Unfortunately, some people set their automatic sprinklers with a timer and ignore the system after that. They ignore the weather, too. Some homes have sprinklers on while it is raining! What a waste of water.

If you have an automatic sprinkler system, turn it off for the winter. Plants don't need nearly as much water now as when they're actively growing during the spring and summer. Because there are fewer daylight hours in the winter, plants are less active and need less water.

If you save water, you'll be saving more than money on your water bill. You'll be saving energy as well. For example, 19% of the energy that is used in California is spent on pumping and transporting water from one place to another. Because 65% of the water in Southern California is imported from Northern California and the Colorado River, that is a heck of a lot of water that needs to be pumped to get it here. Purifying the water to drinking water standards takes energy too. It is much more energy-efficient and eco-friendly to use stored rainwater to irrigate in the winter.

The California legislature enacted the Water Conservation Act of 2009 that is also called "20 by 2020." This bill mandates a 20% statewide reduction in water usage by 2020. Let me quote this dire statement from the preface to the bill, which can be found at http://www.water.ca.gov/wateruseefficiency/sb7/docs/20x2020plan.pdf.

"Our overall demand for water has exceeded our reliable developed supply. Without additional action, demand will continue to exceed supply. The Delta is in crisis, drought has depleted our reservoirs and groundwater resources are overdrafted. Our need to pursue conservation and eliminate unnecessary uses of water is more important than ever to ensure the future health of our state."

After this bill passed, the city of Huntington Beach took steps to promote reduction in water usage. The city mandated that irrigation be prohibited between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., with no more than 15 minutes per irrigation station. From November through March, irrigation is limited to once a week, and no more than three days a week from April through October.

Fortunately, Huntington Beach residents are doing really well at conserving water. According to a flier put out by the city's public works utility division, the average household in the city now uses 280 gallons of water per day. Ten years ago, that number was 350 gallons per day. We don't know how many people were in those average households, but the national average is 2.6 people. That figures out to an average usage of 106 gallons per person.

There are two people in our water-thrifty household, Vic and me. We monitor our water usage pretty closely, and our water bills show that we used an average of only 47 gallons a day per person in 2010. That is despite the fact that we grow a lot of our own fruits and vegetables.

We have taken a number of water-saving steps in addition to using rain barrels. For example, our toilets are low-flow. We take short showers and don't turn the water on full blast. We both turn the faucet off while brushing our teeth. Vic even switched to an electric shaver to eliminate using water for shaving.

But outdoor landscaping is the biggest area for potential water savings. We have a drought-tolerant landscape that needs no water in winter other than rainfall, and only about once every 10 days in summer.

The folks at Community United Methodist Church on Heil Avenue between Goldenwest and Edwards streets had the right idea when they ripped out their lawn and replaced it with drought-tolerant plants. They completed their project, which was designed by Dustin Gimble, on Jan. 6.

This is a perfect time of the year, and a perfect time in the planet's longer cycle, to kill your lawn and replace it with California native plants or other drought-tolerant landscaping. We're in this water crisis together. We all need to do our bit to help solve it.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LMurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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