Little steps now can make big water impacts

POULSBO — Turn on the faucet — water comes out.

Flush the toilet — water goes down.

But it’s never too early for communities to start envisioning and planning for a time when that may not be true.

In light of the drought emergency declared by Gov. Christine Gregoire this month, local water purveyors are sending two messages to users. First, the groundwater-driven Kitsap County may not suffer the same effects of this summer’s drought as other jurisdictions. But second, and possibly more important, users should become aware of water issues before they become an emergency.

“Here, we’re lucky,” Poulsbo Public Works Director Jeff Lincoln commented. “We have lots of high quality water and people aren’t used to having a limited amount of water and having restrictions. But if we get to that point, it can take years to get more water rights.”

Besides dealing with water through his job, Lincoln has witnessed extreme water measures first-hand as a former resident of California and Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, 100 percent of water is recycled, and Lincoln said he would haul his family’s supply home in jugs in the back of his car. Though the desert is an extreme example, Lincoln predicts great hardships if Northwesterners keep wasting water.

“People will think the increases in gasoline price now are mild compared to the increase in water costs,” he said.

Users get a twofold benefit from limiting water waste — they help conserve resources and can see savings on their monthly bills. Lincoln encourages community members to look at their homes and yards for ways to save.

“Look for where you see obvious water waste,” he explained.

Inside the home, 75 percent of water use is in the bathroom. Large gallon savings can be achieved with easy steps like turning off the faucet while brushing your teeth or doing activities that warm up the central water heater before letting the tap run for a hot shower or shave. But consumers are also encouraged to watch water waste through drips and leaks, which can waste up to 15 gallons of water a day.

Water-efficient appliances and fixtures can also help save water. Examples include:

• Low-flow shower heads use 2.5 or less gallons of per minute compared with 5-7 gallons per minute

• Low-flow toilets use 1.6 gallons per flush versus 3.5–5 gallons per flush

• ENERGY STAR qualified washers use 18-25 gallons of water per load, compared with 40 gallons per load

Outside a home, the biggest water wasters are sprinklers, especially when it comes to lawns. Valley Nursery horticulturist Terri Mitchell said, as with any plant, it is better to water lawns deeply and less frequently. If using a sprinkler, dig into the lawn and make sure water is penetrating at least six inches, otherwise water is being wasted and the plant’s roots are staying too near the surface.

“(Grass) has the ability to develop a very deep root system and that way, when you have a drought or something, you’ll only have to water about once a month,” Mitchell said.

Soaker hoses under a layer of mulch and watering cans are the recommended ways to efficiently water flower beds, landscaping and gardens.

Drought or no drought, those in the know say community members will save time, money and hassle by incorporating water wise plants in their yards. Often misconceived as only native or specialty plants, WSU Extension Horticulture Coordinator Peg Tillery said gardeners might be surprised by the variety available.

“The main thing is if people are dying to plant things this year, our local nurseries have some fabulous water wise plants available,” Tillery commented.

Mitchell said one of the biggest myths in the Northwest is that plants here need large amounts of water. In fact, she explained, one of the bigger threats to a beautiful garden is poor drainage during cold, wet winters rather than lack of water during hot, dry summers.

“I’d say about half of what we sell could be drought tolerant if you just establish it right and don’t over water,” Mitchell said. “It just takes a little bit of planning.”

The WSU extension, as well as most local nurseries, have information sheets available about water wise plants and proper plant care. Some popular choices include rhododendron, most types of decorative grasses, smoke trees, butterfly bushes, heavenly bamboo, most fruit trees, lavender, serviceberry and geraniums. And when it comes to growing vegetables during a hot, dry summer, think Mediterranean tastes. Things like tomatoes, peppers, squash, artichokes, onions, rosemary, marjoram, thyme and oregano will thrive without much water.

But the biggest trick is understanding soil drainage, mulching, soil additives and proper plant water needs, Mitchell added. With those in mind, anything planted before the weather turns sweltering should be fine.

“Plant now,” Mitchell said. “We’re supposed to have rain some time this spring. If you put them in the ground, you’ll be surprised how much they root out in just a few months.”

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