Jason Foster, Director, Public Outreach and Conservation, San Diego County Water Authority
Elizabeth Ramos, The Water Conservation Garden
Related Story: More San Diegans Commit To Water-Efficient Lifestyle
CAVANAUGH: Summer is officially here! And hot summer temperatures are in the forecast heart this week. But one thing we're not dealing with later this summer are new water use restrictions in San Diego. It seems our water supply situation is doing okay for now. As long as we keep up the good work on water conservation. However, there are some dark clouds on the horizon when it comes to California's below-average snow pack and forecasts of continuing drought conditions. Joining me to talk about water supply and conservation in San Diego are Jason Foster, director of public outreach and conservation at the San Diego County water authority.
FOSTER: Thanks for having me.
CAVANAUGH: And Elizabeth Ramos is with the water conservation garden in El Cajon.
RAMOS: Happy to be here.
CAVANAUGH: We find ourselves in a rather odd situation. We've got below average rainfall, a below average snow pack. So why aren't we in worse shape when it comes to water supply this summer?
FOSTER: Well, there's basically two reasons that we're not facing water use restrictions.
FOSTER: There's still enough water from the stores over winter. And the second is due to the conservation practices and the businesses in San Diego County have been implementing over the past few years. Our water use per person is down 1/3 from 2007 to 2012. And thanks to conservation efforts, we're in much better shape than some parts of the state.
CAVANAUGH: What is the water situation like in other parts of the state?
FOSTER: Well, there are some parts of Northern California that draw from multiple water supplies that are much more dependent on runoff from the Sierra Nevada. They are looking at urgent calling for conservation. Los Angeles has done the same because they're not getting the flows that they usually depend upon
CAVANAUGH: When we say now new water restrictions in San Diego County, that basically means what it says: The old water restrictions in various cities are still in place, like the permanent water restrictions in the City of San Diego.
FOSTER: Right. There are local ordinances and conditions from all the local cities and districts. And if people have questions about what their water practices should be, when to water their landscapes, things of that nature, they should check with their water provider to make sure they're in compliance. But the good news is our situation is not getting worse this year in the short-term.
CAVANAUGH: You mentioned that we have done really an enormous amount of conservation with our levels of water usage down one third from 2007. In what ways have we cut down?
FOSTER: What we've seen is there's been a lot of focus on reducing water use outdoors. Both in the residential and the commercial sector. We've seen an increase in neighborhoods all around San Diego County. More people are putting in water -- low-water use landscapes that still look very nice and lush and beautiful. People are more attuned to stopping leaks and using more water-efficient irrigation systems.
CAVANAUGH: I believe this conservation, our achievement in conservation was so profound that you did a survey to ask people why people were conserving. What were their motivations?
FOSTER: A couple years ago, we had a lot of concern about if we got out of mandatory restrictions once water supplies improved, would people still conserve? And more than 80% of the county population said they would. And many of them, about half said they were motivated because conserving water, using it efficiently they felt was the right thing to do in San Diego County. About 30% also said there was a financial motivation to do that, to help insulate themselves.
CAVANAUGH: Now, Elizabeth, I want to ask you more about the conservation of water in outdoor water use. How are gardeners taking conservation to heart?
RAMOS: I think our visitation is up, our classes ever full at the garden. And we see our weekend workshops completely full. Many people are discovering the beauty of drought-tolerant plants. And education is our specialty at the garden. So people can come and see what exactly do drought-tolerant plants look like in the landscape. And they've discovered that it's not just cactus and rocks. There's actually a very, very plant palette for Mediterranean climates throughout the world. Like Chile, Australia, south Africa. All of those areas have climates similar to what we have here in San Diego. And people are getting really jazzed about having he's beautiful landscapes that are appropriate for our climate.
CAVANAUGH: Tell us about the water conservation garden in El Cajon.
RAMOS: Well, we've been open nearly 15 years. We're a nearly 6-acre facility. We've got plants, but we've also got classes every weekend for adults. We service 30,000 children a year with our Ms. Smarter plants heroes program.
CAVANAUGH: Ms. Smarty plants?
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RAMOS: She's a really dynamic educator, and children come by the BUSS loads on a weekly basis and learn how to take care of our environment and conserve water. People are learning that glass is one of the thirstiest plants in the landscape. So we teach people that there are options for removing that turf or even just using a turf that's less water thirsty. So we're really a demonstration garden that shows people not only the plant palette, but hardscape options, how to do compost, how to hire a professional if you're not into the do it yourself thing. We have a class coming up this month giving you some tips on what to look for when you're hiring a professional.
CAVANAUGH: It seems ironic, the trend toward people planting their own gardens dovetailed with the water of conserving water. And I thought they were mutually exclusive ideas. But they're really not, are they?
RAMOS: They really aren't. If you think about all the resources it takes to go to the store or have our produce shipped in from all over the world, and then you did to the store to pick it up, you're in a roundabout way using water to get those things to you. So if you're growing your own produce and using water-efficient irrigation to do that, you still are saving water as well as other related resources.
CAVANAUGH: Let me talk about gray water. San Diego water agencies are working on recycling, putting new sources of water online. But gray water, the City of San Diego eased restrictions earlier this year about the use of gray water. What are the laws regarding the use of gray water as they pertain to the county?
FOSTER: Well, I'm not an expert on all the laws when it comes to using gray water. But I know we did support when the city used its restrictions or used the regulations regarding the use of gray water systems. Some of the -- there's been a lot of advances in making simple gray water systems like from your laundry to your landscape that didn't necessarily need to go through some of the regulatory checks that more ambitious gray water systems need to go through to make sure you don't somehow mix gray water with your standard drink think water. You don't want to see that happen. So the good news is that it is getting easier to implement gray water systems. And if people want to get more ambitious with it, they have ways to do that as well. But it's best to check with the city or the county health authorities to make sure that they follow those regulations to make sure they do them properly.
CAVANAUGH: And is gray water something you recommend at the conservation garden?
RAMOS: We inform people that that is an option. And we direct them back to their municipality for the specific regulations. But it's part of the overall conservation landscape. In addition to using rain harvesters. Harvest that rain so you can use it on your plants.
CAVANAUGH: Is that more than just a big barrel?
RAMOS: There are various types of rain harvesters. There are garbage cans that people use, there are more sophisticated rain barrels that have an actual tap on them which is what we have examples of at the garden.
CAVANAUGH: Jason, there are different ways that cities around San Diego County are trying to conserve water. There is of course the north city water reclamation plant. There's a pilot program going on there, there's the desalination plant being constructed in Carlsbad with the hope that down the line, both of these projects will really give us an awful lot of water so we don't have to rely so much on outside sources and we're not so challenge the by droughts as they continue. Does the California water authority support those efforts?
FOSTER: Oh, yes. Our mission is to provide a safe and reliable water supply for our residents. And there's no one silver bullet that's going to do that for us. Promoting water conservation and water use efficiency is one angle of that. But you're also going to need to develop new locally controlled supplies that can help us make sure that there is a reliable base for our supply, even if drought conditions to hit the Colorado River basin where we get a lot of water, or Northern California where we get a lot of our water. So desalination, purification programs like the City of San Diego is currently reviewing, those are all important ingredients to help make sure that we'll have safe and reliable supplies to not just meet our needs now but for generations to come.
CAVANAUGH: When we're talking specifically about conservation, we have conserved 1/3. Do you think we can do better?
FOSTER: Yeah! There's always room for improvement in water-use efficiency. And what we want to see is a steady progression in how the region is going. And actually there's state legislation that requires Californians to reduce per capita water use by 20% by 2020. We're ahead of that pace. So we're focused on continuing to make it easier for people to find and implement water efficiency measures in their homes and businesses. That's why we launched our new website this month, watersmartSD.org. And to keep our region on pace see we can hit our use efficiency targets by 2020.
CAVANAUGH: What can people find on the website? What kind of resources?
FOSTER: The site is organized by what kind of water user you are. You can be a residential user or running a homeowner's association, a business, or an agricultural enterprise. And under each of those section, you'll find programs and incident evers, audits, surveys, rebates, things of that nature. And links to other information, case studies for how things have been done in other properties, what kind of water efficient plants are in the marketplace. And news and events around the region.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I was interested in the water use calculator.
FOSTER: If you don't know where to start in conserving water around your home, you can go into this online residential water use calculator, and after answering a few easy questions about what your inside fixtures are like, and what your outdoor landscape watering situation is, it'll calculate what your water use is in your home and compare it to a water-efficient home, and similar homes in the same Zip Code. So you can get a real good idea of where you might have room to improve for your specific situation. And then it's a great place to start. And you can follow that up with getting an audit or survey from your local water agency, have a professional look at your system and give you something to build on that.
CAVANAUGH: Sounds like hours of fun.
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FOSTER: The possibilities can be limitless.
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