Kate Swinehart faced a choice when the seemingly never-ending drought left little water to sustain her lawn: Let it die, replace it or find another way to get water.
The Pleasanton resident opted for replacing her lawn with plants that were satisfied in dry climates and wouldn't wilt away when water was scarce. Now, her children romp in the tiny wilderness she's created, scampering to catch the critters that climb on the colorful branches.
"We play in the front yard every day," said the mother of two children, ages 4 and 1. "They climb on the rocks. They look for strawberries in the strawberry plants. We look for bees."
"They play in the front yard more than when it was grass," Swinehart added.
The rest of Pleasanton is facing the same questions related to home water use, conservation, landscaping and avoiding those pesky water fees. A four-year drought has left the city -- and the rest of California -- with less supply than usual and little relief, and the only a speculative promise of hope on the horizon in the form of an El Nino this winter or spring.
In the meantime, the whole state is required to cut 25% of its water use as compared to 2013. The Tri-Valley is generally exceeding that benchmark, but mostly because residents and agencies have thought outside the box.
The city of Pleasanton has conserved about 41% in 2015 as of Aug. 25, compared to 2013 data from the same time-frame. Pleasanton water officials estimate the city will see 38% conservation by year's end. The city as a whole is required by the state to use 24% less water this year than it used in 2013.
In neighboring Livermore, California Water Service Company customers conserved 42% between January and July compared to those months in 2013, according to Yvonne Kingman, a spokeswoman for the private water retailer that provides water to most of Livermore.
The city-operated Livermore Municipal Water has conserved about 33% this year compared to 2013, agency officials said.
The Dublin San Ramon Services District (DSRSD) was at a 34.8% conservation rate for the year as of Aug. 30 compared to 2013, spokeswoman Renee Olsen said. DSRSD, which provides sewer service to Pleasanton on contract, is also the water district for Dublin and parts of San Ramon.
All of those water agencies, including the city of Pleasanton, buy water from wholesaler Zone 7 Water Agency, which reports a 37% year-to-date conservation rate.
Making a house call
When Pleasanton water officials realized they needed to amp up water conservation, they didn't just talk the talk. The city set up a water conservation hotline -- a quasi-emergency water response -- for any and all calls related to saving water.
And the calls sure came in. The first day the drought call center started, staff got about 680 calls, said Daniel Smith, the city's outgoing director of operational services.
"And we called every one of them back," said Smith, who retired on Tuesday after eight years heading the department.
The water conservation hotline was initiated after Pleasanton implemented fees on excessive water use during the drought. Staffed by city water experts, the call center helps residents understand their water bill, including any fees, and answers questions about how to use resources effectively to conserve the optimum amount of water.
Typical callers ask about unexpected surges in water bills, leaking sprinklers and dying trees -- including those who are pointing out others' water transgressions. Smith said they still get about 90 to 100 calls a day.
If a simple answer over the phone won't fix the problem, staff make a house call.
Troy Smith, a water conservation technician, walked around one Pleasanton resident's lawn in late August, inspecting sprinklers. After testing the sprinklers, he adjusted the unit's timing and made some suggestions for follow-up repairs.
Troy Smith said he's taken a lot of calls during his time with the city.
He's met with residents who eagerly want to save water, but an unwelcome surprise like a leaky toilet plug wasted hundreds of gallons of water a day. He's also met with residents who refuse to conserve, but he said those are few and far between in Pleasanton -- and excessive-use fees tend to change their attitude.
He'll get calls from infuriated residents who are upset about a fee, but talking out that specific resident's options usually calms the situation, he said. Often, a conversation or a meeting will get that home in line with the required conservation levels.
"The most interesting ones are the angry person who isn't angry by the time we get off the phone with them," he said.
Troy Smith said a big way to save water is to have an expert check for leaks if a water bill suddenly increases. A broken sprinkler, an inefficient watering system or a faulty toilet can cause hundreds of gallons of water a day to be lost unnecessarily.
Ways to conserve water inside the home include installing low-flow shower heads and low-flow toilets, capturing and reusing warm-up water from the shower to flush toilets and running the dishwasher or washing machine only when full.
Some Californians have flocked to social media to share quirkier ways of conserving water, such as cutting their hair short so less time is spent in the shower, washing vegetables in a pot of water and watering plants with that water, forgoing food that takes a lot of water to produce and flushing the toilet less frequently -- keeping with the mantra, "if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down."
If there's a concern, Troy Smith said, just ask for a visit from a city water conservation expert.
"I get right out to see what the problem is," he said. "It's all about saving water."
Green lawns, extra work required
Pleasanton residents can douse their lawns twice a week with potable water, but sometimes that isn't enough.
To fill the gap, residents have flocked to the DSRSD recycled water fill stations.
The program gives out free recycled water for irrigation at the fill station on Johnson Drive in Pleasanton and the newer station in the Dublin Safety Complex. The program gave out 17.9 million gallons of recycled water between mid-2014 and mid-August to help residents keep their lawns green without using potable water, Olsen said.
DSRSD water attendant Martha Zavala said the Pleasanton fill station has been bustling this year. Many people she meets just landscaped their lawn in the past few years and don't want that money to be wasted.
"That's why they come here, to save their lawns," she said.
Pleasanton resident Kristen Scobie was among those who decided to try out the program. Toting a 275-gallon tank in her truck, she filled up enough to get her lawn through the week.
She said she didn't want to lose the "little trees that are struggling to survive" or her grass that was planted just before the drought hit, and using recycled water means she and her husband can conserve even more potable water.
"There's still something about curb appeal," she said.
The Scobies said they bought their tank at a feed store for about $200, plus $120 for the pump.
Hardware stores and online retailers also sell the tanks. Prices for tanks that hold more than 200 gallons range from about $150 to about $300, according to DSRSD customers.
DSRSD provides a list of customer recommendations on its website for where to buy tanks, pumps and other equipment to make the most of the recycled water program. Tanks must be between one and 300 gallons to be used at the fill stations.
DSRSD staff recommend users make sure their truck or SUV can handle the weight of the recycled water before filling up because overloading the vehicle can be dangerous. One gallon of recycled water is about eight pounds, and 100 gallons is 833 pounds.
Recycled water is treated wastewater, so it is full of nutrients that are perfect for lawns and some garden plants, but it should never be used for drinking, cooking or washing surfaces that will hold food. Recycled water used to wash down porches or cars must be recaptured to keep it from draining into a storm drain, which is prohibited because the drains go directly to the Bay.
Users should wash their hands with potable water after watering and keep kids and pets off the lawn while it is being watered.
DSRSD notes people shouldn't drink recycled water, but if you accidentally consume it, there's no need to panic or contact poison control. Monitor yourself for any symptoms, and contact your doctor if you feel unwell, agency officials said.
In addition to the residential program, DSRSD and the city of Pleasanton are in the middle of construction projects that will bring more purple recycled-water pipes to the area. DSRSD officials stated the district's project will save 49 million gallons of potable water a year, and Pleasanton officials stated the city's project will save 450 million gallons of potable water a year.
Involving the public
Tri-Valley customers have conserved more water this year than anticipated. While that is good for the state of the area's water supply, it means retailers' revenues have taken a hit, and some of them are looking at raising rates to cover maintenance, staffing, construction and other costs.
Zone 7 itself is looking at increasing its water rates. A study to evaluate the cost of selling water to areas of the Tri-Valley has so far suggested the water wholesaler will run out of reserves within a few years if no action is taken.
The Zone 7 Board of Directors is set to host public meetings Sept. 16 and Oct. 21 in Livermore to discuss the future of its water rates.
Since Zone 7 sells to Pleasanton, Livermore, DSRSD and Cal Water, its prices affect what retailers charge customers.
The city of Pleasanton is also looking into raising water rates this fall after a study showed the current rates charged to customers only cover about 87% of the costs associated with buying water from the Zone 7.
Enterprise operations, like water, are supposed to be fully funded by ratepayers, not by taxpayers.
Pleasanton water rates are expected to increase by 6% in October, if the City Council approves the change.
Pleasanton's rates are currently under public review and are set to be discussed at neighborhood meetings and other public meetings. The council's final vote is expected next month.
To discuss issues related to water conservation and water sourcing, the Pleasanton Chamber of Commerce will hold a water summit this Tuesday beginning at 8:15 a.m. at the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Ave. Panelists will discuss their views on the DSRSD's plans to diversify their water supply and Zone 7's current supply options.
The city of Pleasanton is also holding a free "What to Do With that Brown Lawn" workshop on Saturday at 10 a.m. at 3333 Busch Road. Registration is required, and residents can RSVP at 931-5504.
"Wave of the future"
Some residents are conserving water by letting their lawns die, by painting their brown lawns green or by putting in drought-friendly landscaping.
When Pleasanton couple Bruce and Yvonne Crawford decided to landscape their yard, they knew the lawn had to go. Planting grass and thirsty shrubs didn't make much sense when potable water was in short supply, so the Crawfords opted for plants that didn't care if the soil and air were dry.
"It's amazing how good a front yard can look without grass," Yvonne Crawford said of the landscaping outside her home.
Purple, red and orange plants add a pop of color next to their Zen garden, lily pond, stone patio and waterfall, which uses recycled water. Plants named "purple majesty," "cloth of gold" and "white swan" thrive throughout their yard since the landscaping project wrapped up in February, Bruce Crawford said.
While the project wasn't cheap -- they estimate $4,500 in all -- the savings to their water bill have been substantial. Between the new landscaping and other conservation methods they're using around the house, they said they've cut their water use to 50% from what it was in 2013.
Swinehart, who began landscaping at her Pleasanton Meadows home in spring 2014, said the yarrow, flax and California lilac have helped contribute to about a 50% reduction in water compared to 2013, even when considering the fact that new plants need a good amount of water to get established.
Based on how much she and her husband paid, she estimates a small yard replacement could cost between $2,000 and $5,000, depending on the size of the lawn.
"We just knew that it was the wave of the future," she said. "It's a no-brainer."
For more information
* The city of Pleasanton's water conservation hotline can be reached at 931-5504 or online at www.cityofpleasantonca.gov/gov/depts/os/env/water.
* DSRSD residential recycled water fill stations are located at 7399 Johnson Drive in Pleasanton and Dublin Boulevard at Clark Avenue at the Dublin Safety Complex.
To participate in the DRSRD recycled water program, residents must sign a water-use agreement and bring the completed form to a fill station before receiving training and an ID card. Visit www.dsrsd.com or call 828-0515.