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Santa Barbara Leads California In Cutting Water Use

May 5, 2015
Originally published on May 5, 2015 2:37 pm

Cathie Pare adores water-wise gardens. She works for Santa Barbara's water conservation program, and today, she's inspecting a yard that was recently converted from grass to drought-friendly plants.

"There's a little manzanitas in here — the little baby ones," Pare says. "Those are so cute!"

The owners will get reimbursed for half the cost of materials, thanks to a city rebate program that since last July has doled out $190,000.

Pare and a team of two others also visit homes for water checkups to help homeowners program their sprinklers or improve irrigation.

"We also do water checkups inside and help people just find simple leaks, like a toilet leak, which believe it or not will leak 100-150 gallons a day," she says.

All of this has helped Santa Barbara cut water use by 22 percent over just two years. The city now saves more water than any other place in Southern California.

That gives Santa Barbara a head start: To cope with the extreme drought in California, state officials are finalizing a plan to cut water use across the state. They're asking individual cities to reduce water use by anywhere from 4 to 36 percent.

Santa Barbara's water conservation coordinator, Madeline Ward, says her city's program is nothing Californians can't handle.

"We're all use to earthquakes and fires and floods, so if you throw a drought at us we're all going to be able to respond well to it," Ward says. "I think it's just giving people the right tools to do that."

For Santa Barbara, those tools include teaching school kids about the drought, offering rebates for water-saving washing machines, even raising water rates twice in as many years.

But many similar sized cities have tried similar ideas — without similar results.

Ward says maybe the real difference is that Santa Barbara survived another brutal drought, in the late '80s.

"We were in a bit more of a silo at that point," she explains. "It wasn't this monumental, statewide drought that we are now seeing. It mainly had pretty bad effects in the central coast."

At the time Santa Barbara relied almost exclusively on local water sources that were drying up fast. By 1990, the city was freaking out. It set up tough new restrictions, banned watering lawns and jacked up water rates significantly.

Ward says the change was so abrupt, some people actually painted their yellow lawns green to keep up appearances.

"It got to the point where people were really just trying to save their trees, and the feedback we received is that that created a lot of undue hardship for folks," she says.

But water use did drop about 40 percent in a single year. That drought ended in 1991, but the city's been hyper-vigilante ever since.

Visit today, and reminders to save water are everywhere, like this ad welcoming residents to "Mulch Madness," a program offering free mulch for water-wise gardens. The push is working on resident Andre Rhodes — or at least on his kids.

"They start coming home from school and telling me all these things about what I can do to conserve the water and help our environment, so I have to lead by example," Rhodes says.

These days, Santa Barbara gets some of its water piped in from Northern California, and even has an idled desalination plant it could fire up. But that would only meet some of the demand.

So even though the state is only asking Santa Barbara to cut water use by 16 percent, the city itself set a goal of cutting as much as 25 percent.

Resident Al Doctorlero says he's been saving water and feels tapped out.

"You can't totally shut everything off, Doctorlero says. "You got to do your dishes. You got to take a shower."

But there's one sacrifice he has yet to make: his lawn.

"I do like to have green," he says. "I'd like to keep it as long as I can."

Eventually, he may not have a choice. If the drought worsens, the lawn-watering ban could return.

Copyright 2018 KPCC. To see more, visit KPCC.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're about to visit a California city that's finding out how to conserve water. The whole state is under pressure to do that during an epic drought. Santa Barbara is doing better than most. From member station KPCC, Sanden Totten reports.

SANDEN TOTTEN, BYLINE: Cathie Pare adores water-wise gardens.

CATHIE PARE: There's a little Manzanitas in here - the little baby ones. Those are so cute.

TOTTEN: She works for Santa Barbara's water conservation program. Today, Pare is inspecting a yard that was recently converted from grass to drought-friendly plants, like the red-trunked Manzanita. The owners will get reimbursed for half the cost of materials, thanks to a city rebate program that since last July has doled out $190,000. Pare and a team of two others also visit homes for water checkups, where they help homeowners program sprinklers or improve irrigation.

PARE: We also do water checkups inside and help people just find simple leaks like a toilet leak, which, believe it or not, will leak 100 to 150 gallons a day.

TOTTEN: All of this has helped Santa Barbara cut water use by 22 percent over just two years. The city now saves more water than any other place in Southern California.

MADELINE WARD: We're all used to earthquakes and fires and floods, so if you throw a drought at us, we're all going to be able to respond well to it.

TOTTEN: Madeline Ward is the city's water conservation coordinator.

WARD: I think it's just giving people the right tools to do that.

TOTTEN: For Santa Barbara, those tools include teaching school kids about the drought, offering rebates for water-saving washing machines, even raising water rates twice in as many years. But many similar-sized cities have tried similar stuff without similar results. Ward says maybe the real difference is that Santa Barbara survived another brutal drought in the late '80s.

WARD: We were in a bit more of a silo at that point. It wasn't this monumental, statewide drought that we're now seeing. It mainly had pretty bad effects in the central coast.

TOTTEN: At the time, Santa Barbara relied almost exclusively on local water sources that were drying up fast. By 1990, the city was freaking out. It set up tough, new restrictions, banned watering lawns and jacked up water rates significantly. Ward says the change was so abrupt, some people actually painted their yellow lawns green to keep up appearances.

WARD: It got to the point where people were really just trying to save their trees, and the feedback we received is that that created a lot of undue hardship for folks.

TOTTEN: But water use did drop about 40 percent in a single year. That drought ended in '91, but the city's been hypervigilant ever since. Visit today and reminders to save water are everywhere.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Welcome to Mulch Madness...

TOTTEN: Like this ad for a program giving free mulch for water-wise gardens. The push is working on resident Andre Rhodes - or at least on his kids.

ANDRE RHODES: They start coming home from school and telling me all these things about, you know, what I can do to conserve the water (laughter) and help our environment, so, you know, I have to lead by example.

TOTTEN: These days, Santa Barbara gets some of its water piped in from Northern California and even has an idled desalination plant it could fire up. But that would only meet some of the demand. So even though the state is only asking Santa Barbara to cut water use by 16 percent, the city itself set a goal of cutting as much as 25 percent.

AL DOCTORLERO: You can't really totally shut everything off. You got to do your dishes. You got a take shower.

TOTTEN: Resident Al Doctorlero says he's been saving water, and he feels tapped out. But there's one sacrifice he's yet to make - his lawn.

DOCTORLERO: I do like to have green, so I'd like to keep it as long as I can.

TOTTEN: Eventually, he may not have a choice. If the drought worsens, the lawn-watering ban could return. For NPR News, I'm Sanden Totten in Los Angeles. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.