11 Ways to Meet California’s New 25 Percent Water Cutbacks

April 2, 2015 | By | Comments (38)
photography by George Olson

photography by George Olson

Governor Brown’s call yesterday for mandatory water cutbacks for all Californians has a lot of us wondering what more we can do to save water, especially outdoors. And how can we get our gardens through the worst drought in our history? Here’s a strategy.

photography by Thomas J. Story

photography by Thomas J. Story

Save established trees first 

They’re costly to replace and have the greatest impact on your landscape. (Ash, birch, poplar, Coast redwood, magnolia, and Japanese maple are often the first trees to show signs of drought stress). Give the trees a deep irrigation within the next two months so they’ll be better equipped to withstand drought. Coil soaker hoses around the plants at and inside the drip line, let them moisten the soil 18 to 24 inches down.

Monitor shallow-rooted shrubs 

On azaleas, rhododendrons, and young camellias, watch for wilting or drooping new growth. Build basins around them (make sure the water won’t pool against the trunks), and give them a deep soak this month.

Stop watering the lawn

When it turns brown, just keep it mown and tidy. If your grass is Bermuda, it will green up again in fall (assuming we get rain!). If it’s another type of grass, it’s easy (and relatively inexpensive to replace) in fall.  

photography by Thomas J. Story

photography by Thomas J. Story


Put down a layer of mulch about 2 inches thick around plants, to help keep moisture in the soil. Ground bark is a good all-purpose type. (Watch: How to mulch)

Check your irrigation system

A leaky irrigation system wastes water fast. Watch yours run, then adjust sprinkler heads so they won’t wet sidewalks or driveways. Be sure your drip emitters put water into the soil near plant roots.

Water carefully

Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation to put water where it’s needed most: directly over plant roots. Irrigate plants in the early morning when air is still and cool.

Rainbird (photo by E. Spencer Toy)

Rain Bird (photo by E. Spencer Toy)

Try hi-tech watering

Consider installing a smart irrigation controller, if you don’t already have one, to program and manage your watering. The best ones now use Wi-Fi connections or in-ground sensors that will adjust watering according to the weather.

photography by Thomas J. Story

photography by Thomas J. Story

In the veggie garden…

Snake soaker hoses through rows of veggies such as beans and tomatoes. Water cane berries sparingly after harvest. (In coastal climates, established blackberry plants can get through the summer on no water, raspberry plants on very little). Shade strawberries by propping row covers or shade cloth over beds; allow good ventilation. Space citrus waterings every four to six weeks; irrigate plants to a depth of 18 to 24 inches. The season’s fruit may suffer, but the trees should survive. Let deciduous fruit trees go dry after harvest, and irrigate only if trees wilt. 

Group containers

That way, they’ll help shade and help cool one another. Limit your plant choices to unthirsty succulents, yuccas, and more. Irrigate the plants as needed, using clean shower water you’ve saved in buckets while waiting for the water to warm up.

Cover the pool

Covering an unused swimming pool stops 90 percent of water evaporation waste. For a 400-square- foot pool, that’s almost 1,000 gallons a month. The safest covers are track mounted.

photography by Thomas J. Story

photography by Thomas J. Story

Plan ahead

Watersmart gardens are the new normal in California. Rethink your yard.  When fall planting time comes around, replace the lawn with permeable paving (watch our video!), or with unthirsty plants. In this front yard— a grid of deer grass (Muhlenbergia rigens) and blue agaves carry the show. Or surround a small meadow of low-water red fescue, with yellow-tinged Aeonium ‘Kiwi’, orange-flowered aloes, and red kangaroo paw.


Related links:



  1. 3 Smart Tips to Help You through the California Drought | Dr. Squatch Blog
    October 27, 2015 at 9:58 am
  2. Keeping in Green in the Drought | A blog by Sunset

    […] two very dry winters and recent mandates to conserve water, many of the Bay Area gardens I’ve been in this summer are very parched. […]

    September 14, 2015 at 10:00 am
  3. The debate over lawns in parched Los Angeles: What’s a gardener to do? | A blog by Sunset

    […] farther and farther into its green edges. But with the declaration that all Californians have to cut back on water usage at least 25%, I grew concerned. My other plants are already drought-tolerant, and I only water the lawn three […]

    August 19, 2015 at 10:00 am
  4. Could this inflatable shower curtain scare you into saving water? | A blog by Sunset

    […] so you stopped watering your lawn. You recycle water in the kitchen. Maybe you no longer wash your car. Now are you ready to take […]

    July 28, 2015 at 3:13 pm
  5. jleegwrs

    Have you heard there’s another method to save water efficiently? Ever heard of a greywater recycling system? Now you have!


    Easy, simple, affordable and safe. What a wonderful total solution to save water, save money and save the environment by going green. What are you waiting for?

    July 17, 2015 at 8:49 pm
  6. Linda Frame

    Don’t let water run while brushing teeth, washing hands and lathering up in shower. Train kids to do this.
    When washing dishes; only partially fill sink or a large dirty pot, bowel etc. With soapy water and rinse with as little water as possible into vessel, washing larger and larger items as it fills with rinse water. Don’t run rinse water constantly.
    Use only one bucket of water to wash car….better yet, let it stay dirty, at least for a while.
    Shower less often. Do you really stink so much that you need a shower every day??
    Wear the same shirt more than once, especially if you don’t sweat much.
    Just wash “the stinky parts” at the sink, instead of a full shower.
    Don’t flush toilet every time you pee!!!

    July 6, 2015 at 1:21 pm
  7. San Francisco to builders: Don’t flush our drinking water | A blog by Sunset

    […] state—and the West—will follow San Francisco’s lead. All Californians are being asked to cut back on use, but what’s your community doing to require reuse? Anything? Let us know in the […]

    June 17, 2015 at 5:26 pm
  8. yaya1582

    Why is media not addressing ‘Car Care during a Drought’? Letting my car just “stay dirty” is not an option for me. My car is a big purchase, & I take pride in keeping it well-maintained. I hope to see ideas shared on this point too. Please see my YouTube video brainstorming ways we can conserve with car washing. Let me know your solutions, it part of the discussion: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YG6l0uPLPSQ

    June 6, 2015 at 1:29 pm
    • Kolleen

      Do your research and make sure the car wash you go to recycles their water. I am a big d.i.y.er but when I learned car washes recycle I stopped doing it myself.

      June 30, 2015 at 7:50 pm
  9. Eileen Leech

    Two of my neighbors applied for permits in LA County over the last several years to install grey water systems and were denied permission from the relevant departments. It seems as though this is the sort of thing public officials should be encouraging rather than denying, and friends reporting these experiences, coupled with the cost and wasted time and effort, inevitably will discourage others from attempting such projects.

    April 23, 2015 at 8:14 am
    • Anne

      I agree with you; water recycling should have been encouraged at least 20 years ago. We recycle bottles, manure, animal carcasses at rendering plants (SiriusDog.com), jeans, lumber, fire bricks, and a host of other items to save our natural resources. Water, the most precious of all our resources, should be a priority. Where I live, grey water systems were not allowed 24 years ago, but are now. Currently, we/home owners are not paying a fee to the town or city to recycle our grey water. If the town or city officials saw a way to make money from grey water recycling, I am sure there would be a sudden push to allow its widespread use. Instead, they see easy money by overcharging for water and tacking on large fines for violating quotas.

      April 25, 2015 at 10:55 am
  10. Want a Crash Course in CA’s Drought? Read This. | A blog by Sunset

    […] The articles are a stark and startling look at how the water shortage is affecting people’s lives—and a huge motivation to cut usage when and where we can: in our cooking, washing, gardening—everywhere. […]

    April 22, 2015 at 11:00 am
  11. Our 6 Favorite Vegetarian Recipes for the Drought | A blog by Sunset

    […] all working on our drought plans to save water in the bathroom, laundry room, and garden. But what about in the kitchen? Recent news says if we want to have a big impact on the drought, we […]

    April 20, 2015 at 11:29 am
  12. Gray Water: From Laundry to Landscape | A blog by Sunset

    […] systems designer and author Art Ludwig. While many Californians are scrambling to meet the 25% water reduction mandate, Art’s been shouting from the rooftop for years: There are so many ways to save water. While […]

    April 20, 2015 at 9:01 am
  13. River-Rafting Trips Are Still On, Even With Record Drought | A blog by Sunset

    […] big, scary problems posed by California’s drought seems frivolous. (It’s an issue we should and are taking […]

    April 16, 2015 at 1:35 pm
  14. Julie B

    I went to a greywater workshop and frankly I left with the impression that I had to have money in order to do this…I am currently unemployed and living with and caring for my father…most of the backyard is paved but I have many many container plants and though I am selling the more water thirsty ones I am keeping a majority….I was planning on one day opening my own nursery by starting at home…This drought is forcing me to put that on hold…around here most people aren’t too fond of cacti or succulents though I have many of those too so I can’t make much money selling them….When I went to the greywater workshop the speaker said she used to have mostly pavement in her Berkeley backyard and had it torn up and replaced with landscaping using her greywater system…Well that might be fine if you’ve got a good job that allows you to save a lot of money but that’s not something I could ever do since you can’t get a good paying job in California anymore….So that leaves poorer people screwed as far as being able to use the greywater system….
    Right now I have to stick with having several buckets around my yard, shower and kitchen to save ‘runoff’ water and apply to my container plants when needed…That’s all I can do…I take quick showers, only do laundry every two weeks, dishes every few days and the plants–though many–as needed…but the plants are probably my biggest source of water use so if there are any methods (and drip irrigation is something I can’t do right now either until I can get funds) to help container plants from drying up with the new regulations I would love to hear some (and yes I do have a lot of cacti and succulents but many are more moderate users of water)….Also does anyone know if there are water saving devices for Roses in huge containers?…I have several Roses in huge pots along my driveway where they get maximum sun and I can get by with watering them every other day but as it gets hotter I usually have to water them almost every day….I have put some mulch in them to help conserve water…It’s much tougher to try to save plants in pots during a drought than if they’re in the ground but for so many without much lawn or mostly pavement potted plants are the only gardens we can have…including fruits and veggies…

    April 15, 2015 at 5:30 pm
  15. Anne

    To use greywater on plants, it is safer to use a biocompatible soap or detergent, which when it breaks down in the soil leaves plant nutrients instead of toxins and salt left by regular soaps and detergents (biodegradable is misleading, it needs to be biocompatible). I use Oasis laundry detergent, available on Amazon.com. Laundry greywater is first collected in two 55 gal tanks and then fed into a drip irrigation system that is 2-4 inches below ground. Greywater should not be sprayed in the air. Greywater in tanks should not be stored more than 24 hrs so that harmful bacteria does not form. My pomegranate tree is flourishing and loaded with blossoms, all without using drinking water.

    April 11, 2015 at 10:41 pm
  16. Laurel Rynd

    Can you use softened water (salt process) or is the salt content too harmful for the soil?

    April 9, 2015 at 11:45 am
  17. How to Use Greywater 101 | A blog by Sunset

    […] With an oppressive drought and sweeping new water restrictions, many of us are asking: What more can we do to save water? […]

    April 9, 2015 at 10:57 am
  18. Ellen Hershey

    Pao, your plumber’s info about permit requirements for a simple laundry-to-landscape greywater irrigation system may be wrong. According to the EBMUD website, state legislation passed in 2009 allows homeowners to install these simple systems without a local permit. EBMUD even offers rebates for the 3-way diverter valve that allows you to divert laundry rinse water from the usual discharge into the sewer to water your landscape. http://www.ebmud.com/water-and-wastewater/water-conservation/graywater-rebates
    EBMUD website has a list of links to web info on this. Also, if you check the Houzz website and search for greywater irrigation, you’ll find a great how-to article that gives details on constructing a laundry-to-landscape system.
    Diverting greywater via a plumbed system from your shower or bathroom sink or other household sources is more complicated and does generally require a permit.

    April 7, 2015 at 9:10 pm
  19. xericmaid

    While the Sunset article gave some of good ideas, it presupposes that people MUST keep their azaleas, rhododendrons, etc. Why? Aren’t they water-guzzling plants? Keep one by your kitchen door, where you can water it with dishwater and rinse water, but start by re-thinking what you HAVE to have in your yard.

    April 7, 2015 at 1:27 pm
  20. Teresa

    These are very minor efforts for homeowners are just a “drop in the bucket” compared to what needs to happen in farms and broad acreage landscapes. Farms need to redo their irrigation systems to cut back 25% as well as more dryland farming. We need to create “water receiving” landscapes, more reservoirs, more Keyline designs.

    April 6, 2015 at 9:46 pm
  21. brenzelk

    @Kathy P Some soaps and detergents may contain certain harmful ingredients that can damage some plants. For details, check out the University of California Cooperative Extension Connection website’s publication “Use of Graywater in Urban Landscapes”. @ucaner.edu

    April 6, 2015 at 11:24 am
  22. brenzelk

    @Pao Most ornamental plants do well on gray water and will not be affected by mild soaps or shampoos. Some exceptions: don’t apply gray water to seedlings, container plants, or acid-loving and salt-sensitive plants such as azaleas, camellias, ferns, gardenias, and hydrangeas. Food crops are another matter. Use gray water only to irrigate food crops with edible portions that are high off the ground, like fruit trees. Gray water should never contact anything that is eaten. Never apply it near or on low-growing food crops such as lettuce and strawberries, and do not apply it to subsurface crops, such as carrots and onions.

    April 6, 2015 at 11:12 am
  23. brenzelk

    @Maria You’re right; ollas make irrigating veggie crops, especially in small beds, easy. You just sink these unglazed terra cotta vessels up to their necks in soil between row crops, fill them with water, then let the plant roots pull the water as needed. We’re trying them out now!

    April 6, 2015 at 10:47 am
  24. mary T

    the bubble wrap type of pool covers are cheap and easily trimmed to fit. I heartily recommend them–they heat the water up, keep bugs & debris out, prevent algae growth (caused by the sun/photosynthesis) AND minimize evaporation. Everyone with a pool needs one.

    April 6, 2015 at 7:52 am
  25. hal s

    how about we cut back on fracking and agribusiness? That’ll save far more water than cutting down showers and having a dirty car.

    April 5, 2015 at 10:33 pm
  26. smileybev

    By not eating one cheeseburger, you save over 1,000 gallons of water. Watch Cowspiracy (movie). Cut down on eating animal products.

    April 5, 2015 at 10:19 pm
  27. Renee P.

    Best to use gray water for flushing toilets, but it can be used in the garden. Great info here from UCD. We were just wondering about this tonight.

    April 5, 2015 at 9:22 pm
  28. Maria

    Great article, but wish you’d do a story on Ollas for watering in the garden, then maybe more places would carry them. They seem to be the best choice for saving water in the garden. It’s the only way I feel I can justify growing veggies in this drought.

    April 4, 2015 at 10:00 am
  29. sharon

    Got rid of front yard–nice rock yard now and it looks better than grass–I hand water plants that need it–water bill went way downnnn!!!!

    April 4, 2015 at 8:55 am
  30. Aron Roberts

    Delighted to see these outdoor tips, and, of course, exceptionally beautiful drought-resistant garden examples, an aesthetic sense so characteristic of Sunset throughout the years!

    An indoor tip: low-flow showerheads made right here in California’s Central Valley … with an exceptionally powerful spray: http://imgur.com/K0GVeQS

    April 4, 2015 at 8:34 am
  31. Rick

    Why do people need to water lawns 3x/week ever? I haven’t watered my lawn since early November 2014 and it’s lush and green because I now a little higher. It prevents up to 80% of weeds and doesn’t burn up when it’s hot. Need more lawn care education to save water.

    April 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm
  32. R Hunter

    Put basins in all your sinks, take the water out and put it on your plants or on your compost pile.

    April 2, 2015 at 10:21 pm
  33. Pao

    wondering about gray water too — can it be used to water a veggie garden of the soap is biodegradable?
    I wih it were easier to redirect gray water to the garden. We just talked with a plumber about redirecting the water from the kitchen and laundry but we would need permits from the city of Oakland, and are quite expensive. Such a shame

    April 2, 2015 at 4:23 pm
  34. Rudeman

    We can’t afford to change what we have and unfortunately we have a pool that is shaped so that it can’t be covered easily. I bought one but it must be placed and replaced each time by hand and it is heavy.

    April 2, 2015 at 3:16 pm
  35. Shirley chamberlain

    I would volunteer to shower with George Clooney!

    April 2, 2015 at 2:15 pm
  36. Kathy P

    What about grey water from laundry for watering shrubs and trees?

    April 2, 2015 at 1:46 pm

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