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Confessions of a water hog

Uploaded: Nov 5, 2023

I recently got a nag email from the City of Palo Alto telling me that my house uses too much water. Not only am I using far more water than similar households, it is getting worse. “Sheralyn, you're using 49% more water this year than last year.” Don’t I care about the drought? And how is it even possible to use that much water?

I don’t find this monthly nag to be helpful. The house has always used a lot of water and it is proving difficult and expensive to use less. Palo Alto’s high water rates and the state’s tendency to be in drought do mean that I care about water use. But whatever I do will never be enough for the city, short of killing my plants.

Water use at my house has changed over the last years as I have made adjustments, but it has never been low. Invisible leaks during the wet season last year meant even that year was bad.

I have mulched over a lawn, replaced it with low-water natives, replaced spray irrigation with inline drip, and put in smart controllers. Water use has gone up and down, but lately it’s taken another turn up. Part of the problem is leaks.

A shovel broke a PVC irrigation pipe that was not buried deep enough.

The house has a long history of water leaks, from stuck toilet flappers to below-slab leaks. But almost all of the problems have been outside, on a 9200 square foot lot with 13 irrigation zones and all manner of plants. I’ve had leaks from redwood roots breaking irrigation. From Japanese maple roots strangling and holding down a fountain refill. From a settling structure breaking an irrigation pipe. From a shovel breaking an irrigation pipe. From a dog chewing off a sprinkler head. From a leaky irrigation valve.

A drainage valve on an inline drip system got knocked slightly askew, causing it to spray out water when irrigation was running.

I have fixed all of these things. I even moved all the irrigation valves above ground so it’s easier to see leaks. But it’s still not enough. The new smart controller is buggy. (1) The inline drip has drainage valves that can get knocked open. The low-water plants are only low-water once they are established. The inline drip is not so efficient when plants are young and small.

Above-ground irrigation valves are pretty ugly but it’s easier to see and fix leaks.

Some of these leaks can be pretty expensive due to our high water rates. The first big leak I had, many years ago from a growing redwood root breaking a pipe, sent my water bill soaring to $800+. The utility refused to refund any of it. Nowadays they will issue a refund, but only for a permanent fix. When I found the fountain refill was being held down by roots, I turned off the refill, but that wasn’t good enough to get a refund. Since I wasn’t replacing the fountain for a year, which was too late to file, I never did get a refund. In fact, I have never gotten a refund, partly from lack of awareness that at some point they became available, and partly because I dreaded the paperwork. But these leaks add up. The most recent one was about 6 gallons/hour, or about $70 for the month (6 CCF).

Tracking down a leak using a standard water meter is no picnic.

Even if I manage to stay on top of all the leaks, my usage will never be that of “similar” homes. The smart controller, when it’s working, estimates I need from 7-10 CCF during a non-rainy month, just for the yard. That works out to around 200 gallons per day. Alternatively, if you estimate about a half inch of water every two weeks (that is about one-third of a gallon per square foot), then that comes to about 100 gallons per day for 5000 square feet of planted area. A single large tree, of which I have several, can use 400 gallons per week.

So, what is my point? I think I’m just annoyed with the city’s emails. It is my choice (and my good fortune) to have a large plant-filled lot. My monthly bill reminds me of the cost, and also gives me a clue when there might be a leak. So I’m not sure what the nag emails add. The leaks are not going to stop and the water use is never going to be low. 15 gallons of water is enough for a ten-minute shower, a load of laundry, or ten toilet flushes. But that same 15 gallons covers just 1% of my planted area every 1-2 weeks.

I’ve already done everything the city suggests, and more.

Maybe it would help if the city asked, in addition to how many people are in a house, how many planted square feet there are, how many large trees there are, how mature the landscape is. Maybe a Recommended Action should be “Remove plants”.

What would actually help is more proactive notification of leaks. They aren’t hard to detect. The new water meters will help, but I don’t know when I will get one, so I finally caved and bought my own real-time water monitor. That will make it faster and easier to track down the inevitable leaks, especially since it will hook into the smart controller. Hopefully over time, as more of my plants develop robust root systems, I will be able to dial down the water and finally save some money.

Notes and References
1. Do not buy a BHyve smart controller. They are unreliable and the software is terrible.

Current Climate Data
Global impacts (September 2023), US impacts (September 2023), CO2 metric, Climate dashboard

Doesn’t it feel strange to have such warm weather when the days are getting shorter? From Climate Central: “This October, San Jose was much warmer than normal and much drier than normal. The average temperature of 68.2°F was 3.9° above normal, and the 0.11 inches of precipitation was 21% of the normal amount (data are from SC-ACIS and normal is defined relative to the 1991-2020 NCEI climate normal). This year stood out as the third warmest October in San Jose in data going back to 1893.”

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Posted by Jennifer, a resident of Danville,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 8:06 am

Jennifer is a registered user.

Water conservation is very important, and you're wasting way too much water. And you're annoyed at the city for "nagging" you? And you're complaining about not getting "refunded?" You have a strong sense of entitlement. You should be thankful they're not shutting off your water.

Posted by MichaelB, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 9:24 am

MichaelB is a registered user.

"So, what is my point? I think I'm just annoyed with the city's emails. It is my choice (and my good fortune) to have a large plant-filled lot. My monthly bill reminds me of the cost, and also gives me a clue when there might be a leak. So I'm not sure what the nag emails add."

What they "add" is an illustration that our elected officials do not have a plan (or refuse to implement one) to increase the supply of water for residents. We'll have perpetual conservation instead - and the micromanagement/punishment/rationing that goes along with it. Who would have ever thought that people/businesses in the state might actually need to use water?

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 11:47 am

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Thanks for these comments! I realize this post is not a good look, whiny at best, more like spoiled/entitled as @Jennifer says. But the problem is it's true, so I thought I'd see what we can collectively make of it.

One response is to just lay the blame squarely on me, as Jennifer does. There's some sense in that, but the problem from my perspective is I have made a sincere and sustained effort to reduce my use, except for having fewer plants. So is that what you are suggesting? It's irresponsible to have so much planted area?

Another response is to lay the blame on the government for emphasizing the importance of conservation rather than working to increase supply, as @MichaelB suggests. We should not have to use less. The disconnect there is I am trying to use less and think it is important. I'm just having a heckuva time doing it.

Here are a few other possible takeaways that I came up with:

(a) We over-estimate the good that technology -- in this case, fancy irrigation, will do, and underestimate the problems. Low tech with some behavior change can be a lot more effective. Plant fewer new plants at a time, but some each year, water them by hand when young, and in ten years the yard would be full of plants with much less water use/leaks.

(b) This illustrates one of many problems with single-family homes. Little isolated yards don't add that much for wildlife, and they are wasteful and inefficient to maintain. Much better to have big areas of natives, professionally maintained, shared by people and animals. (In that vein, I just came back from Laurelwood Park in San Mateo, which was well used on a Sunday and also lovely and a home to animals.)

(c) Our culture makes us want to have our cake and eat it too. Sometimes we need to be okay with less. Plants, in this case.


FWIW, I'm still hopeful that I will have made a big dent in water use in a few years, once all the plants are established and I have a leak-detecting water meter from the city, so that is something...

Again, thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Your comments make this much more interesting.

Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 12:00 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

I'm with you on the "hog" thing. We have low-flow toilets and drip irrigation nearly everywhere except a small-ish lawn. Our water bill went down after replacing half the lawn with lavender, though it took a lot of water to establish the plants, as you note. But we have a redwood tree, which send thigh-thick roots to whatever source of water it can find, starving out whatever happens to be in the way.
I am happy with CPAU, but find their informational notices completely and unrelatably useless. When I see notices that the average water/gas/electric bill will increase by a few dollars, they aren't talking about me or anyone I know. I don't need reminders from CPAU to conserve - I am reminded with every monthly bill.

One anecdote about the "you could be doing better" notices: My in-laws were rated #1 on their block for using the least amount of water one summer. But they were away during that time.

FWIW I am a happy user of Rachio smart controllers, which Valley purchased for me as part of their landscape rebate program.

Posted by Bystander, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 12:09 pm

Bystander is a registered user.

These monthly mailers are annoying. I wonder how much they cost?

As for the comparisons, unless you are comparing like with like they are not helpful. Things like size of the household, age of the household, how many hours each person is in the house, etc. all make a difference to things as basic as how many flushes as well as laundry and showers. Taking into account a young baby, whether someone plays a sport that produces sweaty/muddy sports clothes, takes more than one shower each day, can all make a big difference. Also a family that cooks from scratch as opposed to eats ready cooked delivered food can make a difference too in terms of how often the dishwasher runs and whether additional hand dishwashing is done.

Like with like comparisons would be invasive. Therefore we cannot get much information out of these mailings.

Posted by Jennifer, a resident of another community,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 2:15 pm

Jennifer is a registered user.

If you feel this is being caused by your plants, less plants would solve the issue. One plus one equals two. It is "irresponsible" to use 49% more water, and double the usage of the average Palo Altan. Under 10,000 sq. foot lot isn't a large lot.

Some areas will shut off your water usage, depending on local law.

Keep on trying until the problem is solved. You're on the 20-yard line. Good luck!

Posted by Eric Muller, a resident of Los Altos,
on Nov 5, 2023 at 5:00 pm

Eric Muller is a registered user.

> This illustrates one of many problems with single-family homes. Little isolated yards don't add that much for wildlife, and they are wasteful and inefficient to maintain. Much better to have big areas of natives, professionally maintained, shared by people and animals.

As George Monbiot says: Private Sufficiency, Public Luxury.

Web Link

His proposals are certainly challenging for most of us (including myself), but they are worth listening to and thinking about.

Posted by Asher Waldfogel, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 6, 2023 at 8:51 am

Asher Waldfogel is a registered user.


The simple answer for this is ALL water users should pay the same price per gallon. Agriculture users pay much less than urban users and are using 80% of the water in California. Much of it for export crops.

Palo Alto's urban design is mostly about landscape and landscape needs water.

Posted by David Coale, a resident of Barron Park,
on Nov 6, 2023 at 1:55 pm

David Coale is a registered user.

Hi Sherry,

I will have to side with Jennifer and the first couple of paragraphs of your response. Why should I have to pay for your water leaks via higher water rates when I am doing more then my part to conserve water? Why should the city supply all that you want for water while taking more water from sensitive places that cannot afford it? The mighty Colorado river no longer flows to the sea because all the water has been taken and there is none left for wild life or anyone in Mexico. We must live within our needs and not our wants. Is this not part of why we have climate change? Too much fossil fuel use regardless of the impacts?

Posted by BobB, a resident of Vintage Hills,
on Nov 6, 2023 at 2:55 pm

BobB is a registered user.

@Sherry and MichaelB,

I think you're missing an important reason why Palo Alto and other cities won't build more water capacity. Lack of water capacity is often used as a reason not to approve housing (or any) development. People want their homes to retain value and want to keep their neighborhoods exclusive. Homeowners frequently lobby against adding water availability for this reason. So we're stuck with the less than ideal situation of having to conserve unnecessarily. This really doesn't have much anything to do with climate change.

Posted by Donald, a resident of South of Midtown,
on Nov 7, 2023 at 7:13 pm

Donald is a registered user.

A water bill once a month rounded to integer CCUs is not very helpful in identifying leaks or problems. Smart meters with better resolution in time and usage can help. A few years ago I had a water meter with a digital readout that could display gallons per minute of real-time usage. I went through each zone of my irrigation system one-by-one and measured the GPM so I could calculate how long to irrigate and so I could have a baseline to help identify leaks. I have had two water meters since then and neither has this very useful function. I suspect I have a leak in one of my drip zones, but it is hard to pinpoint it with the existing meter.

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Nov 7, 2023 at 7:37 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

Ha @Donald, you can't believe how many times I have been out and back to my meter with a flashlight, timing different zones, timing things with various house valves on or off, to try to figure out what is "normal", what is a leak, etc. I have irrigation spreadsheets to determine expected flow for different settings, irrigation diagrams to try to isolate problems, numerous valves to isolate groups of zones so I can shut them off, etc. It is such an unbelievable pain in the a**. I think that is partly why I find the city nags to be so annoying. They nag without doing a single thing to help actually find and fix the problem, and they tell you about the leak after weeks of letting the bill run up.

@KOhlson, yes, I should have gone with Rachio. BHyve was a bad rec from my landscaper and I went with it even though I'd heard better about Rachio. I own this one, ugh.

@Jennifer, it's not that I "feel" this is the landscaping, it's that it "is". See chart at top of this post! I hope I'm on the 20y line. This feels more like Groundhog Day.

@Eric, yeah, that makes sense, like a college campus. But how do we get there from here?

@Asher, yes, landscape needs water. LA has a tiered rate structure so that bigger properties get more water at a lower rate. It does no one any good to have bigger properties become treeless dry brown fire traps.

@David, I get it. Maybe what I'm asking for is for the city to help *fix* the problem rather than nag. Give a water monitor to everyone with a high water bill. That would have been a huge help. The nags, not so much.

Anyway, very fun to read these comments, thanks.

Posted by Claudette McDermott, a resident of Del Prado,
on Nov 8, 2023 at 12:38 pm

Claudette McDermott is a registered user.

Yup these mailings are annoying and our household has cut back as requested, when cutting back was first introduced . We've done our share to reduce water usage yet we and everyone I know, keeps receiving these mailings. I just don't believe them anymore. I think they automatically mail these to push us into "Catholic Guilt" to try to make us cut back more :)

Personally I believe that if the city takes the first steps in REMOVING public lawns then maybe people will get more into removing their own lawns to cut back even more than we already have.

Posted by Mark Weiss, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 8, 2023 at 1:52 pm

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

I relate to this topic because I am actually 75 percent water

Posted by keeknlinda, a resident of Vintage Hills,
on Nov 8, 2023 at 3:37 pm

keeknlinda is a registered user.

How about not fewer plants, but different ones? Ones better suited to the climate. Natives maybe, or just ones that are less thirsty.

Posted by TimR, a resident of Downtown North,
on Nov 8, 2023 at 4:12 pm

TimR is a registered user.

Pumping water around requires a lot of energy, and accounts for around 13% of all the electricity used in the country. So even if it's green electricity, cutting back on water usage plays a big part in fighting climate change. NOBODY should be thinking they need more of it.

Posted by Eddie, a resident of Fairmeadow,
on Nov 9, 2023 at 5:58 pm

Eddie is a registered user.

Sherry -

You are absolutely correct in that the city needs to take into account the size of ones lot (and probably also the type of vegetation). Your tree is good for the entire planet, so thank you for watering it. And if you happen to have enough room for 10, please water them all!

I think it's an interesting question as to whether people should be allowed / entitled to have drought tolerant proportional to the size of their lot. Maybe yes, maybe no - but again, the city *does* know the size of your lot and the size of your house, so they can do the math there. I would also disagree that small yards don't help - our small yard of native plants attracts lots of bees, hummingbirds, doves and (unfortunately) gophers.

FYI - we used to have our irrigation valves above ground, and they were constantly leaking. If nothing else, PVC piping can degrade when exposed to sunlight (I believe). We had a professional redo our irrigation and place all of the valves underground in what I would call an irrigation box??? We've had 1 leak in 4 years (but it was audible). Other than that, it's been very reliable. If you can find someone who knows what they're doing and have them install the valves below ground, I really think that's the best solution. But I understand your frustration - before we found the person who knew what they were doing, we had many of years of people who clearly did not :-(

Posted by Sherry Listgarten, a blogger,
on Nov 9, 2023 at 6:32 pm

Sherry Listgarten is a registered user.

@Claudette, +1 on the cities/counties leading by example with less lawn, more natives, etc.

@keeknlinda, totally agree that the type of plant is important and does help. But even natives use a decent amount of water if there's a large planted area, at least until they are fully established, and even then they will use some to keep looking decent. At least, that's my experience and understanding. YMMV.

@TimR: I think it's more like 20% of our electricity is used to pump water in California. At least, I saw that stat somewhere. It's crazy high. Good point that we should think more about that aspect of water use.

@Eddie: I only recently moved the valves above-ground from below-ground boxes, at the suggestion of my gardener and landscaper for easier maintenance. If that was wrong, argh. Despite doing that, the leak I have now, 2.5 gallons per hour 24x7 somewhere near the above-ground front valves, is not visible or audible. So, double-argh. I will update this if/when this stuff is ever fixed. I suspect that when the city rolls out the better meters, they will find leaks everywhere.

Anyway, thanks for the comments, and apologies for using the blog this week to basically rant :)

Posted by Eric Muller, a resident of Los Altos,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 10:00 am

Eric Muller is a registered user.

> I think it's more like 20% of our electricity is used to pump water in California.

But that's going to go way down, thanks to all our EVs :-). More seriously I have seen this other formulation:

> The water system uses approximately 20% of the state's electricity Web Link

which already incorporates more energy (e.g. running a waste water facility, which is more than pumping).

I have tried to track the source or sources for this number, and it seems that there is only one source, a document from the California Energy Commission, "California's Water �" Energy Relationship", November 2005, CEC-700-2005-011-SF. Web Link

The details are in appendix B, which combines 1) data from 2001, from the CEC that splits the electricity consumption (250 TWh) on various activities, and 2) a guesstimate of how much of that electricity is related to water. The net result is 48 TWh or 19% (of 250 TWh) related to water.

For example, "Industry, Fabricated Metals", consumes 2,045 GWh and 5% is deemed related to water, so that category contributes 105 GWh to the 48 TWh.

But look at "Residential, Clothes Drying". That consumes 5,769 GWh, 100% is deemed related to water, so all 5,769 GWh contribute to the 48 TWh. If you ask me, clothes drying is not "operating the water system", much less "pumping water".

This is not to say that the report is wrong. Rather, that it looks at the relationship between water and energy, and it is true that the more clothes we wash, the more energy we will need to dry those clothes (until we realize the sun works pretty well most of the year).

I suppose we could go through appendix B and use different guesstimates for the proportion used for pumping. But we would still be with 2001 data, which seems a bit old.

Of course, there may be other studies about pumping. Anybody has some pointers?


Posted by MyFeelz, a resident of another community,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 12:12 pm

MyFeelz is a registered user.

I support ranting. Yours got a pretty diverse response. I was in Arizona a few weeks ago and desert landscaping there is brought to us by mother nature. She put everything in the right places. From sunrise to sunset, the foliage shifts visually and every scene is postcard perfect. Most residential communities adapt to it and build around it. Low-growing succulents are as beautiful (or maybe more beautiful) than a tall tree. Everyone who owns a home has a right to surround it with whatever will suit their needs and desires. It's your sanctuary.

Posted by KOhlson, a resident of Old Palo Alto,
on Nov 10, 2023 at 3:07 pm

KOhlson is a registered user.

Following up on above-ground valves. White-pipe PVC definitely degrades in UV. It's an easy project to build simple backless boxes to protect them from the sun - I used redwood fence board. I have 10 valves above ground for 20+ years, and no issues.

Posted by BobB, a resident of Another Pleasanton neighborhood,
on Nov 12, 2023 at 10:41 am

BobB is a registered user.


If you enjoy your plants and you've done everything you can to fix leaks or otherwise maintain your irrigation system, why not just continue doing what you are doing and ignore the nag email? You're not hurting anyone and if you can afford, why not?

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