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Silicon Valley’s Biggest Drought Lessons

Gov. Jerry Brown’s conservation mandate for cities last year spurred water savings across Silicon Valley. Here are some of the highlights of what communities accomplished and how they did it.

Written by Tara Lohan Published on Read time Approx. 8 minutes
In response to water conservation mandates, South San Francisco, California, cut its municipal water use by 57 percent and saved about 53 million gallons (200 million liters) of water. Tara Lohan

SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, California – Anyone who has ever flown into San Francisco International Airport has likely spotted South San Francisco thanks to the huge sign on its hillside proclaiming it “The Industrial City.” It’s a remnant of the days before World War II when the city was home to meatpacking operations, steel plants, smelters and other manufacturing.

South San Francisco today is known for its biotech businesses, suburban housing and much lighter industry. It’s also greening up its image, thanks in part to work done by its Parks Department. In response to statewide conservation mandates from Gov. Jerry Brown last year, the city cut its municipal water use by 57 percent in 2015 over 2013 levels and saved about 53 million gallons (200 million liters) of water.

Its water savings work earned the city an honor from the annual Silicon Valley Water Conservation Awards, along with several others – businesses, government agencies and municipalities, including the city of Menlo Park and a government lab at Stanford.

In looking at the different ways in which Silicon Valley communities tackled conservation work and innovation so far during California’s historic drought, some important lessons emerge in both what has worked and where significant hurdles remain.

Changing Minds

Drought-tolerant landscaping has replaced grass to conserve water in South San Francisco, California. (Tara Lohan)

Drought-tolerant landscaping has replaced grass to conserve water in South San Francisco, California. (Tara Lohan)

South San Francisco’s Parks Department used the drought as an opportunity to demonstrate water conservation work, but also to shift the way landscaping is done at the municipal level.

“We saved a lot of water over the last couple of years simply by turning off the water, which I don’t think is terribly earth-shattering, but a lot of places around here didn’t do that,” said South San Francisco parks manager Samantha Haimovitch, who is a landscape architect. “We did let things go brown, but we’re also trying to replace high water-usage stuff with more drought-tolerant planting.”

The city stopped watering grass medians, establishing plantings and hardscapes. They identified water-intensive landscapes that needed to be replaced with drought-tolerant ones, increased the mulching of soil to maintain moisture and shut off all decorative fountains.

But the change in practice went deeper than that. The city teamed up with the Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Gardening Coalition (also known as ReScape) to train Parks staff on holistic landscaping principles that include conserving water and energy, reducing waste, nurturing the soil, creating habitat, protecting air and water and understanding the local considerations for landscapes.

While South San Francisco’s results are laudable, there have been challenges. When they first reduced water use in response to the drought, they got a lot of negative feedback from residents. Some didn’t like seeing brown lawns and wanted them watered more. And others didn’t want to see any green and thought the city wasn’t doing enough to cut back on water use.

“Balancing expectations with requirements is really interesting,” said Haimovitch, although as the drought wore on and more places let lawns go brown, Haimovitch said residents got used to the idea.

But Haimovitch said her department also ran in to budgeting issues. While they were able to convert some areas to drought-tolerant plants, others simply remain brown during the dry months.

“Money is always an issue,” she said. “Now, that we are bouncing back a little after the economic downturn, we’ve got so much deferred maintenance underneath the issues related to the drought that we have a lot of projects and not enough funding to go around.”

Despite the city’s accomplishments, the best things are likely yet to come.

“I would really like us to be a role model not only for our residents but also for other jurisdictions around us, our neighbors here in the region, to demonstrate what is possible,” said Haimovitch. “I think that we have picked off the low-hanging fruit and have done really well reducing our water use but there are things I’d like to continue to do to implement stormwater capture and gray-water systems.”

The drought has helped open up a door to more innovative thinking about landscapes and what is possible. “My hope is that whenever we are taking on a public project of any sort and any scope that we’re looking at how to apply water conservation to that and really incorporate the landscape into any building design and also implement low water-usage techniques inside the facility,” she said.

Incentivizing Change

LawnBeGone_Graph.001 (1)

Just 20 miles (32km) down the road from South San Francisco is Menlo Park, an affluent community in the heart of Silicon Valley with median home prices near $2 million. Facebook has their headquarters there and it’s next door to Stanford University.

It’s also becoming something of a conservation rock star these days. Menlo Park was tasked by the state with cutting water use by 13 percent. Like other communities, the city would be fined if it didn’t meet its target.

Nicole Sandkulla, CEO and general manager of the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency (BAWSCA), described Menlo Park as a community that could afford to pay its way out of any fines. “But their numbers show that’s not what they did,” she said.

Instead, Menlo Park’s municipal water agency vastly exceeded its conservation. It recorded the highest cumulative water savings in all of California by slashing water use 47 percent.

One of the keys to the agency’s success has been targeting outdoor water use, which makes up more than half of the city’s water consumption. In 2012 Menlo Park launched a Lawn Be Gone program that offers $2 a square foot for lawn removal, with $1 coming from BAWSCA and the other $1 from the city. ( 1 square foot = 0.09 square meters.) “I attribute a lot of our success to that and also people taking it upon themselves to conserve water,” said Heather Abrams, the environmental programs manager for the City of Menlo Park.

When Lawn Be Gone first started it was open to residential customers, then it was expanded to businesses. Originally, the city capped the rebate at a maximum of $3,000 per customer but then they removed that ceiling, as well, which opened up the rebate program to corporate campuses and others with large outdoor areas. The city estimates that the program is now saving about 5.3 million gallons (20 million liters) of water each year.

Of course removing your lawn is only one part of the process; you also need to know what to plant in its place. So Menlo Park started Conserv-A-Scape, a program in which residents can get a design consultation and plan from a landscape architect for converting their property to drought-tolerant plants. It’s a $400 service, but residents only pay $50 and the city makes up the difference.

“These are some things where there is an investment, both by the resident or business and the city, in making sure that the landscape is set up to withstand droughts now and in the future as well,” said Abrams.

Menlo Park also teamed up with Waterfluence, which has a suite of data management tools to help increase irrigation efficiency. Together they targeted the top 101 water users in the district, which includes corporate campuses, homeowners’ associations and a few really large private residences, said Abrams. “They provide them with information about their water use, they put together a simple water budget for them based on how much turf versus shrubs they have and then track their water usage against that budget,” she said.

Menlo Park didn’t just target its water users, it also did some in-house conservation work, too. Storm-drain water is now collected and used for cleaning sidewalks, a savings of 10,000 gallons (38,000 liters) a year. City vehicles aren’t washed so often and are now tagged with “A Little Dirt Won’t Hurt, Menlo Park Is Saving Water” signs, saving 78,000 gallons (300,000 liters) a year, and water that is flushed out of mains (a necessary maintenance) is reused in city fountains, saving 2,000 gallons (7,500 liters) a year.

The water savings have also come with a shift in consciousness about water issues in the community, said Abrams. “I think it’s really exciting to think that as people see more beautiful water-efficient landscaping around the community that it becomes the norm and something that we both expect and value as beautiful and appropriate for our climate.”

Ripple Effect


One of the places that has benefited from Menlo Park’s Lawn Be Gone program is the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The facility is part of the United States Department of Energy, but operated by Stanford University. It’s a massive 426-acre (172-hectare) site, with 150 buildings and 1,400 employees.

After the governor’s mandate to save water, Rohendra Atapattu, the energy and sustainability program manager at SLAC, saw ways to conserve. One of the first things they did was team up with Gachina Landscape Management to remove 20,000 square feet (1,900 square meters) of lawn, which was paid for by $40,000 in rebates from Menlo Park.

They also put up signs inside buildings saying “water conservation, now is the time” to encourage water savings among staff. “We were expecting that behavior would change, but that didn’t happen right away,” said Atapattu.

But as they embarked on more changes outside with the landscape and then inside, replacing the aerators in faucets, Atapattu said employees began to notice.

“Once we told building managers we were going to change out the aerators, they suddenly became a lot more aware and started to report leaking toilets and dripping things here and there that had been going on for awhile but suddenly they wanted to make sure there was attention and money to get that fixed,” he said.

“People starting to report water leaks and then outside, our mechanics and the maintenance people, they started to keep an eye out for where things could be leaking and we fixed those things, too.”

They also began collecting rainwater as it accumulated in various equipment on site, to use it for cooling tower operations.

SLAC managed to reduce water use by 23 percent in their buildings and cut back irrigation by 80 percent. Previously they had been using 9 million gallons (34 million liters) a year just on landscape. Electricity and cooling demands increased 11 percent in the last year, but they still managed to save 15 million gallons (57 million liters) of water during 2014 and 2015 because of conservation measure inside and outside, said Atapattu.

And this work has caused a ripple effect. They are now looking at using recycled water that may become available through a new project with the sewer district. “We’ve put ourselves first in line for interested parties because that water could be used for cooling towers and that is one of our largest uses of water,” said Atapattu.

Big Picture

As California embarks on its fifth consecutive year of drought, accumulating regional lessons and best practice could help municipalities respond better to water supply challenges and prepare for future droughts.

The popularity of water fill stations where municipalities have made recycled water available for residents means the program could expand beyond its current locations. The Los Angeles area is pioneering capturing rainwater, gray water and stormwater to take advantage of nonpotable water needs, while San Francisco is mandating decentralized water-treatment systems in large new construction projects.

In San Diego there is an increased focus on the important connection between climate change and water. “When we ask San Diegans about why they are concerned about climate change, it’s always water and water issues that come to the top,” said Nicola Hedge, the director of environmental initiatives at the San Diego Foundation, which is a part of Climate Education Partners, a collaborative that helps residents and decision-makers understand climate change impacts in the region.

But across all the new initiatives there is a common denominator, as South San Francisco’s Haimovitch summed up: “We’re changing our mindset.”

This is the final story in a 10-part series. Water Deeply thanks the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for their support in making this reporting series possible.

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