How California residents are changing the water landscape

Paths to progress

California residents have been forced to use less water with each passing year, but as drought becomes the new norm, they aren't just conserving, they're revolutionizing the way the state manages its water.

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    Jessica Jewell, a marketing manager for the nonprofit TreePeople, kneels in a sunken 'rain garden' in the front yard of a home in North Hollywood, Calif., last month.
    Michael Owen Baker/AP
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For Carrie Wassenaar, a modest single-story house for sale a half a mile from the Burbank-Bob Hope Airport had the landscaping she was looking for in a home: tidy green lawns front and back, and trees, including an iconic orange tree. The greenery virtually sealed the deal for the Wisconsin native before she ever stepped through the front door.

Today, the animation producer’s front yard is a part of the California water revolution.

Instead of a lawn, it now sports a thick layer of mulch dotted with newly planted, drought-tolerant shrubs and tall grasses, watered by a buried drip-irrigation system. A large, shallow depression in the yard acts as a micro reservoir where water can pool and seep into the sandy soil below, eventually to reach a vast aquifer beneath the San Fernando Valley. That water comes from a computer-controlled, above-ground cistern, which stores rainfall her roof sheds during a storm.  

Ms. Wassenaar’s yard is part of new thinking on water, both here in California and beyond. Just as solar panels are allowing some homeowners to become their own power plant, limiting the energy they draw from the grid, new technologies and practices are allowing homeowners in water-thirsty regions to be a part of a broader water-supply solution.

It points to how conservation, when pushed by necessity, can become something more powerful.

“You want to feel like you're at least trying to help with the solution instead of just contributing to the problem,” says Wassenaar.

That is a shift in thinking that needs to take place – not merely in response to the state's current drought, but also in anticipation of the regional effects global warming is projected to impose, say water managers and others.

Thirty years ago, conservation was easy because people were using so much water, noted Jeffery Kightlinger, general manager of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, during a panel discussion in Los Angeles last year. The advice was simple: Flush toilets less often and put a brick in the toilet tank.         

But conservation has gotten harder as residents and businesses have gotten better at it. When the district called for a 10 percent reduction in water use during a 2009 drought, people delivered, “but it took a lot of work,” he said.

Last April, Gov. Jerry Brown called for a 25 percent cut in urban water use compared with 2013. “We're finding that each increment is harder,” Mr. Kightlinger said, adding, “the next frontier is outdoor use,” which accounts for about half of the region's water use.

That's where Wassenaar’s new front yard comes in.

Catching the rain

It is part of the StormCatcher Project, which aims to convert rainwater from a storm-drain-bound nuisance into an ally in Los Angeles's quest to sustain local groundwater sources, improve flood control, and cut pollution reaching the Pacific Ocean during intense storms.

Data from the six homes participating so far will help water utilities estimate the capture potential for a large-scale program, says Andy Lipkis, executive director of TreePeople, an environmental group that is overseeing the StormCatcher project.

In all cases, homeowners use the water for irrigating their yards, reducing their draw on potable water the Department of Water and Power supplies.

Inspiration for the project came from Australia, Mr. Lipkis explains. During a visit in 1982, he recalls, he was struck by how intimately citizens were involved in water management, even in city suburbs.

“I saw what people were doing with rainwater harvesting” and began thinking about what that could mean for Los Angeles, he says.

The idea is spreading as cities, businesses, and citizens see rainwater harvesting as a way to save money, do right by the environment, or some combination. The end result is a kind of decentralization of water management.

Cistern use, combined with rain gardens, has grown significantly over the past 15 to 20 years, notes Heather Kincade, executive director of American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, a nonprofit advocacy group in Tempe, Ariz.

The first, and so far only, market study of the small-but-growing industry was published in December 2011, based on survey of nearly 100 companies conducted during the second half of 2010. At that time, companies reported an average growth rate of 14 percent a year between 2005 and 2009. Some 41 percent of their business involved residential installations. The study projected that growth would continue at the 14 percent a year pace through 2016.

Growth since the study's publication probably has come in at about 7 percent a year, says Doug Pushard, one of the study's authors and founder of, a consulting and design service for rainwater harvesting, based in Santa Fe, N.M.

“Unfortunately, we had that little thing called the Great Recession right when we were finishing the report,” he says, an economic tailspin that would have slowed the growth. Still, “the industry is growing up under the radar,” says Mr. Pushard, who teamed up with Jason Kerrigan, who heads a sustainable-water systems company in Brisbane, Australia, to produce the analysis.

Since then, activity has picked up again, driven largely by the commercial market, he says. And while he can't put hard numbers to the increase, “I talk to a new vendor about every three months.”

The motivations are the rising cost of water as drought prone areas adopt pricing structures to encourage conservation, tougher environmental regulations on the amount and quality of storm-water run-off, and declining costs of components involved.

A different vision in Seattle

In that way, the tiny industry's development is mirroring the rise in the use of rooftop solar panels to generate electricity.

Not surprisingly, the largest markets for rainwater harvesting, the study found, were in Texas, followed by California and New Mexico. But New Mexico was in a virtual dead heat with Georgia, followed by Arizona and Washington State.

In 2010, Seattle began a pilot project offering financial incentives to encourage homeowners to install cisterns and rain gardens in the city's Ballard section. There, the program aimed to reduce polluted run-off reaching Puget Sound or creeks that are spawning-grounds for salmon. Since then, the city's RainWise program has expanded to cover more of the region.

The city estimates that the program is reducing polluted run-off by about 100 million gallons a year. The goal is to increase that to 700 million gallons a year by 2025.

In Los Angeles, StormCatcher has similar hopes. If widely installed, these systems have the potential to reduce flooding by holding water in the cisterns during peak periods of rainfall, then gradually releasing it as the rainfall dies down, notes Daniel Beger, senior manager of policy at TreePeople. Capture and gradual release reduces the prospect that pollutant-laden run-off will overwhelm wastewater treatment plants and flow directly into the ocean.

The project is slated to last a year, though the participating agencies could extend it.

Even before the results come in, Los Angeles has been eying distributed storm-water capture as a viable solution to help meet its long-range water needs. Last March, it issued its master plan for exploiting storm water.

“The master plan shows that in order for the city to meet its water-supply objectives, distributed storm-water capture needs to play a role,” Mr. Berger says.

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