From a distance, the Stanford Golf Course looks like any typical course on a sunny afternoon. Golfers dot the neatly mowed green grass and a gentle breeze drifts through the air. Upon closer inspection, however, patches of dry brown grass line the edges of the expanse. While many envision a stereotypical golf course as a flawless green carpet, Stanford Golf Course has chosen to take the more environmentally friendly route by reducing the frequency of its irrigation on parts of the course.
Just a few streets away from Stanford, environmentally minded Palo Alto residents have taken steps to reduce their personal water usage as well. The importance of these water conservation efforts has increased in the midst of what is California’s third driest year in the past century, according to the University of California at Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
“Most people seem to be very aware of the State’s drought conditions, and a lot of people are choosing to conserve water on their own,” says Catherine Elvert, the City of Palo Alto Utilities communications manager. “We are currently logging all notices about water use infringements and dispatching staff to educate community members about our drought regulations.”
Palo Alto and other cities across California face an uphill battle if they hope to conserve water as the drought worsens. Across the state, the drought has shown a significant impact as the snowpack has been 16 percent of its seasonal level and reservoirs are 75 percent of their average capacity.
The Bigger Picture
Though people all over California have felt the impacts of the drought, the area suffering most is the environment. Joanne McFarlin, a senior ecologist at local environmental non-profit Acterra, has noticed that lower creek water levels have made water less available to plants and wildlife. As a result, wildlife have less food at their disposal because many native plants have dried up before seeding or sprouting.
“The drought greatly increases the stress to the wildlife,” McFarlin says. “I am afraid that an extended drought will cause further wildlife species to disappear from our area or become extinct altogether.”
While fear of the diminishing water supply may hover at the backs of Palo Altan’s minds, residents should also feel concerned about the toll the drought is taking on the economy. Palo Alto High School environmental science teacher Nicole Loomis says the drought’s effect on the economy will be greater than its effect on the environment.
“If the farmers don’t get water for their crops, then they just can’t grow them” Loomis says. “Prices for food go up, there’s no water in the rivers which means there are no fish and fishermen can’t go fishing. … The drier it is, the more wildfires we have and the costs to fight them go up. All of those [costs] combined [add up].”
Both the environmental and economical implications of a long-term drought make the necessity of conserving water in Palo Alto paramount. Within the Palo Alto community, residents are responding willingly to the city’s water-saving measures.
Ways to Save Water
Palo Alto Utilities runs an education-based system to inform residents about adjustments they can make in their households. The city’s main restrictions on water usage prohibit landscape irrigation only between the hours of 10 a.m. and 6 p.m., discourage water runoff from outdoor landscapes to other properties or sidewalks and request the immediate repair of any broken plumbing, sprinklers or any irrigation systems which permit the leakage of water.
Most Palo Altans have been highly receptive of these sustainability measures.
Some residents, such as Palo Alto High School parent Mary Baker, have taken extreme water saving measures by redesigning their landscaping. After construction work devastated her yard, Baker chose to remove her lawn and replace it with native California plants.
After conversations with people who had already abandoned the traditional lawn, Baker chose to place more drought-resistant plants in her front yard such as the California fuchsia, blue bell, Douglas iris and clarkia.
Overall, Baker feels content with her decision. According to her, 15 to 20 percent of her water bill each month was previously spent on irrigating the lawn. The native plants, however, require much less water because most can survive with very little water. Additionally, Baker enjoys the diverse wildlife that the native plants attract, including Californian birds like chickadees, sparrows and goldfinches. Though it did take time to get used to the absence of grass, Baker feels that her new garden enables her to appreciate the changing seasons.
“I think for some people, they look at the native plants, and at first it’s just disappointing to them that it isn’t more green,” Baker says. “Your eyes get used to it. You see the changes of the seasons more. A lot of people will tell you California doesn’t have seasons, but it does when you see the native plants.”
Baker encourages other Palo Alto residents to reevaluate their reasons for maintaining a lawn, especially since the city of Palo Alto currently incentivizes lawn replacement with rebates of $4 per square foot when residents replace their grass.
“When you see a huge green space in the desert, usually it’s either a golf course or a cemetery,” Baker says. “It’s something to think about when you decide whether you want that outside your home.”
Paly senior Chelsea Thangavelu took an alternative approach to saving water when she realized the large quantity of water she wasted while heating up the shower. Instead of letting this perfectly useable water go down the drain, she regularly collects this water in large buckets and uses it to water the garden.
“It usually takes between three and four minutes [for a shower to warm up],” Thangavelu says. “It’s actually a lot of time and a lot of water considering you should only be taking five-minute showers. That’s more than half your shower time just wasted warming the water up.”
Thangavelu purchased five gallon buckets from Home Depot, and she urges others to try the inexpensive and effective bucket system. Although she doesn’t know exactly how much water the shower bucket saves, it reminds Thangavelu to think about the water she uses each day.
“I think it just raises awareness,” Thangavelu says. “The bucket helps me remember that we’re in the drought and we should be conscientious of how much water we’re using. Whether it saves a lot or a little, it’s kind of a reminder for me just in general to be careful.”
With people like Baker and Thangavelu taking measures to conserve water, the city of Palo Alto has taken notice of how much the community’s cooperation has made a difference.
“A lot of people realize that during shortages, outdoor irrigation is secondary to saving water for drinking, cooking and sanitary purposes,” Elvert says. “We have received a number of calls and emails from people wanting to know precisely what measures are in effect, particularly for irrigation, so they can be sure to comply.”
Despite the multitude of issues brought on by the drought, Palo Alto residents should persist in their efforts to reduce their water usage as much as possible.
“We’ve reduced our water usage by 17 percent in the last year,” Drekmeier says. “We’ve responded to the call [to conserve water] and we should be proud of that.”
Although significant reduction has occurred, Californians need constant reminders of the work that still can be done to preserve the water supply.
“Humans have a short memory,” Loomis says. “There were water restrictions in California in the ’70s. Over time, people forget those ways of conservation. Now we’re back in a place where people will have to realign their lives.”