The landscaping around the Main Library on Santa Monica Boulevard was designed to use little water. it contributed to the library earning a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Gold Rating. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)
The landscaping around the Main Library on Santa Monica Boulevard was designed to use little water. it contributed to the library earning a Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design Gold Rating. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

CITYWIDE — Taking a shower, flushing toilets, watering the lawn — daily life requires water, and managing that need in a town of 90,000 residents and upwards of 200,000 workers and visitors is a challenge that City Hall is trying to conquer.

City officials saddled themselves with a stringent goal in 2010, the last time that they took on the Urban Water Management Plan required by the state, committing the city to consume only 123 gallons per person, per day by 2020.

Come 2013, even in the face of major improvements to both public and private facilities, residents and visitors of the city by the sea go through 134 gallons per person, and getting down to the 123 figure is more than daunting — it may very well be impossible without making life uncomfortable for residents and businesses alike, said Gil Borboa, water resources manager for City Hall.

“One hundred and twenty three per capita, per day is very difficult to meet without harsh, draconian efforts,” Borboa said.

How draconian?

A ban on sprinklers and lawns for residential properties would be necessary, and cutting down on watering parkways — except for hand-watering street trees — would also be on the table.

All hotels in the city would have to retrofit their plumbing fixtures to meet current green building codes, and if a person wanted to sell their property without appropriate low-water landscaping, watch out.

If City Hall keeps this ambitious program on the books and doesn’t make it, that could leave the door open to lawsuits from either the state or environmental groups and cut off grant funding.

The City Council has until 2014 to change the goal in advance of a conversation with state officials in 2015, Borboa said.

Santa Monica has double the reason to meet its water sustainability goals.

City Hall has invested millions, mainly proceeds from lawsuits, into facilities to clean local groundwater so that it can be water self-sufficient by 2020, the same year that it was originally supposed to meet the 123 gallons per capita figure.

That independence would allow City Hall to stop spending money with the Metropolitan Water District and instead produce all of its water locally.

To meet that goal, officials need to find 1,400 acre feet of water savings compared to more than twice that to push consumption down to 123 gallons per person, said Kim O’Cain, water resources specialist with City Hall.

“That’s a significant increase in water conservation,” O’Cain said.

An acre-foot, for reference, is 325,900 gallons, or roughly the amount of water it would take to cover a football field to a 1-foot depth. The typical family of four uses half of an acre-foot of water in one year, O’Cain said.

She prefers using that terminology to the gallons per capita because it factors in visitors to the city, not just residents.

The water per capita figure leaves out the huge number of daily visitors that swarm Santa Monica’s beaches or work in local businesses. When broken down, residents are responsible for roughly 86 of those gallons, and businesses for the other 48, Borboa told the council.

That leaves opportunities to cut water usage few and far between, hence the all-out onslaught on shrubbery that would be needed to cut water usage.

Even then, it might not be enough, O’Cain said.

“I’m not positive we would be able to meet 123 even with the most stringent mandatory conservation rules,” she said.

Instead, officials have focused their efforts on getting that 1,400 acre feet mainly through voluntary measures, some backed up with rebates and grant dollars of their own to encourage people to take the next step toward sustainability.

Drought-tolerant landscaping has seen a big push. O’Cain estimates that half of home water usage goes to landscaping, leading City Hall to offer a rebate program that will give up to $3,000 for improvements in plantings, irrigation systems or a mixture of measures.

City Hall also has demonstration gardens, one of which is in Santa Monica College and has been studied over the course of the last five years.

The data shows that the sustainable landscaping principals demonstrated in the garden resulted in 83 percent less water used, 56 percent less green waste and 68 percent less maintenance than a traditional garden.

Sustainable practices pop up in other city facilities like the Main Library, which won awards for its overall sustainability.

People still have misconceptions about making the switch to sustainable landscaping, said Selena Souders, the designer behind Big Red Sun, a landscaped design firm with offices in Venice and Austin, Tex.

Although people understand that lush lawns don’t fit the bill, they struggle with the idea that low-water doesn’t mean no-water, unless you’re talking cacti, and it certainly doesn’t mean no-maintenance, she said.

“It’s intimidating because it’s really hard work,” Souders said.

For those who don’t want full design services, Souders also provides consulting to help people get past that fear and start reforming their landscaping.

Every little bit helps, O’Cain said.

Although the current proposal would be to move the target from 123 to 141 gallons per person, per day on paper, the internal push to reduce water consumption would remain the same, and City Hall has seen huge improvement over the last 20 years despite population increases and a blossoming local economy.

“Internally, we don’t want to go back to 141,” O’Cain said.

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