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How one California city cut its water use in half

NOEL KING, HOST:

Most of California is still in extreme drought. The governor asked residents to conserve water. That mostly failed, but one town did get it done. Here's Ezra David Romero of member station KQED.

EZRA DAVID ROMERO, BYLINE: Back in June, the wine country town of Healdsburg set a limit - only 74 gallons of water a day for each resident, about half of normal use. That set up a bit of a competition for retirees Merrilyn Joyce and John Diniakos.

JOHN DINIAKOS: I take a shower every other day, sometimes every three days.

ROMERO: But Joyce says she's winning their water war.

MERRILYN JOYCE DINIAKOS: Because I do laundry much less often.

ROMERO: The couple reduced their combined water use to just 24 gallons a day, a fraction of what they're allowed. They use a phone app called Flume, purchased with help from a city rebate, which, through a meter, informs them how much water they use by the minute.

M DINIAKOS: So John just took a shower and that shows you how much water he used.

ROMERO: Just under two gallons of water, all caught in a bucket.

M DINIAKOS: And then we save that water and use it for something else.

ROMERO: In front of their single-story home underneath a broad magnolia tree is a sign that reads drought proof. These signs are everywhere around town. Residents reduced their water use by more than 40% this summer. But why did Healdsburg do so well?

M DINIAKOS: We were in a more dire situation, and people got that.

TERRY CROWLEY: The rainfall totals are the lowest in 100 years.

ROMERO: Terry Crowley is the utility director for the city. Healdsburg is not connected to the state's water system. The only water it gets is from rain stored in reservoirs on the Russian River. One is just 23% percent full. Earlier this summer, it looked like a puddle in a muddy bathtub.

CROWLEY: We really need to get some rain this winter to fill that thing back up. Or next summer, it's going to be more difficult than this.

ROMERO: Newsha Ajami, who studies water in the west at Stanford, says a key to the city's success was pushing residents to monitor their water consumption in real time using cellphone apps with plain language.

NEWSHA AJAMI: The more information you provide to customers, the more public awareness you create, the better customers respond to different asks that the utilities have.

ROMERO: Healdsburg also banned outdoor irrigation, resulting in a huge savings. But it helped people who didn't want their yards to entirely dry up. Megan Bowman has dozens of trees on her one-acre lot. She's grateful the city offered to truck in 500 gallons of recycled water to residences every week. She keeps it in two opaque plastic tanks.

MEGAN BOWMAN: When you're driving along this street, you'll notice these tanks are everywhere.

ROMERO: At first it was free, and now it costs 45 bucks. Residents did have to buy the tanks, pumps and hoses to get the water out of the plastic tanks. Every evening, Bowman flicks on her water pump and, through a system of hoses, strategically waters her trees, many of which are oaks and redwoods. Some are green, but...

BOWMAN: These baby redwoods are not. They're really struggling. And this one off to the left you can see, I think we're going to lose.

ROMERO: Bowman says she has a neighbor who's fed up with the dual threat of drought and wildfires, so much so that the family is ditching Healdsburg for the East Coast, but not her.

BOWMAN: This is home. I mean, I love it here, and this is part of climate change, right? So we have to change, and we have to adapt.

ROMERO: Despite recent rain, the restrictions will continue on at least through the end of the year. And as climate change makes California droughts more frequent and intense, the city is looking for long-term solutions, like storing excess water underground. For NPR News, I'm Ezra David Romero in Healdsburg.

(SOUNDBITE OF CANTOMA'S "OVERTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.