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Lessons From Past Droughts Drive Decisions At Marin County Water District

NOVATO (KPIX 5) -- It's no secret that this has been a dry winter. In Novato, they've had the lowest level of rainfall ever recorded. But water officials there say the community has learned to be more water-conscious, and that may help a lot this time.

The North Marin Water District will begin discussing water conservation measures at its meeting Tuesday night. It's one of the many lessons learned from previous droughts: don't assume next year will be better.

As Novato's summer water supply, Stafford Lake shouldn't look like the way it does in March. Only 30% filled, much of what should be underwater is dry ground. On Tuesday night, the district will consider declaring a water shortage emergency.

"We're hoping we'll get some rainfall there in March but obviously with the water conditions right now, it's looking pretty dire," said district General Manager Drew McIntyre.

Their first step would be a ban on water waste, such as leaks. After converting to smart water meters that transmit real-time data, the district can now detect leaks immediately.

But other measures taken in the last drought will help as well. The district invested $30 million on recycled water infrastructure so businesses can irrigate plants and operate drive-through car washes with water from the wastewater treatment plant.

"That was the largest capital improvement project the district ever took on," said McIntyre, "and it's paying off in big rewards now."

They've also learned not to wait. The district is buying water from the Russian River to backfill Stafford Lake back up to 50 percent filled. That could supply a 2-3 month cushion if no more rain falls.

But, the biggest use of water is, of course, for outdoor landscaping. A lot of people swapped out grass for drip-irrigated shrubs after the last drought. On Tuesday Thomas McHale was at the landscape supply store buying mulch to keep his customer's plants from drying out.

"Well, we're going to be running into a drought and a lot of people are going to be tearing out their lawns," he said. "They're going to be using rock and turf and all that."

Moving to rock is a big step, but it's one Gloria Violin is taking to save water and cut down on wildfire danger.

"I'm here to buy rocks," she said. "I'd rather be buying plants! I love plants. I love the pretty colors of plants, but I'm going to do the right thing. So, we're going to have rocks."

The water district says people have become pretty good about conserving water. In the last drought, the state mandated a 20% cut in usage, but Novato residents actually achieved a savings of 30%.

No one knows if there will be a March miracle that will fill all the reservoirs. But water districts across the Bay Area have learned from past droughts that "hope" is not a viable strategy.


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