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Santa Barbara Leads California In Cutting Water Use

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Gov. Jerry Brown announced mandatory statewide water restrictions at the site of a manual snow survey on April 1, in Phillips, Calif. The recorded level was zero, the lowest in recorded history for California.

Cathie Pare adores water-wise gardens. She works for Santa Barbara's water conservation program, and today, she's inspecting a yard that was recently converted from grass to drought-friendly plants.

"There's a little manzanitas in here — the little baby ones," Pare says. "Those are so cute!"

The owners will get reimbursed for half the cost of materials, thanks to a city rebate program that since last July has doled out $190,000.

Pare and a team of two others also visit homes for water checkups to help homeowners program their sprinklers or improve irrigation.

"We also do water checkups inside and help people just find simple leaks, like a toilet leak, which believe it or not will leak 100-150 gallons a day," she says.

All of this has helped Santa Barbara cut water use by 22 percent over just two years. The city now saves more water than any other place in Southern California.

That gives Santa Barbara a head start: To cope with the extreme drought in California, state officials are finalizing a plan to cut water use across the state. They're asking individual cities to reduce water use by anywhere from 4 to 36 percent.

Santa Barbara's water conservation coordinator, Madeline Ward, says her city's program is nothing Californians can't handle.

"We're all use to earthquakes and fires and floods, so if you throw a drought at us we're all going to be able to respond well to it," Ward says. "I think it's just giving people the right tools to do that."

For Santa Barbara, those tools include teaching school kids about the drought, offering rebates for water-saving washing machines, even raising water rates twice in as many years.

But many similar sized cities have tried similar ideas — without similar results.

Ward says maybe the real difference is that Santa Barbara survived another brutal drought, in the late '80s.

"We were in a bit more of a silo at that point," she explains. "It wasn't this monumental, statewide drought that we are now seeing. It mainly had pretty bad effects in the central coast."

At the time Santa Barbara relied almost exclusively on local water sources that were drying up fast. By 1990, the city was freaking out. It set up tough new restrictions, banned watering lawns and jacked up water rates significantly.

Ward says the change was so abrupt, some people actually painted their yellow lawns green to keep up appearances.

"It got to the point where people were really just trying to save their trees, and the feedback we received is that that created a lot of undue hardship for folks," she says.

But water use did drop about 40 percent in a single year. That drought ended in 1991, but the city's been hyper-vigilante ever since.

Visit today, and reminders to save water are everywhere, like this ad welcoming residents to "Mulch Madness," a program offering free mulch for water-wise gardens. The push is working on resident Andre Rhodes — or at least on his kids.

"They start coming home from school and telling me all these things about what I can do to conserve the water and help our environment, so I have to lead by example," Rhodes says.

These days, Santa Barbara gets some of its water piped in from Northern California, and even has an idled desalination plant it could fire up. But that would only meet some of the demand.

So even though the state is only asking Santa Barbara to cut water use by 16 percent, the city itself set a goal of cutting as much as 25 percent.

Resident Al Doctorlero says he's been saving water and feels tapped out.

"You can't totally shut everything off, Doctorlero says. "You got to do your dishes. You got to take a shower."

But there's one sacrifice he has yet to make: his lawn.

"I do like to have green," he says. "I'd like to keep it as long as I can."

Eventually, he may not have a choice. If the drought worsens, the lawn-watering ban could return.

Copyright 2015 Southern California Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.kpcc.org/.

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