A California Town Squeezes Water From A Drought When Bolinas, Calif., nearly ran out of water, the town came up with a plan — cut household usage to 150 gallons per day, half the average U.S. home use. The whole town pitched in, including the kids. Late rains saved the water supply, but it was only a reprieve.
NPR logo

A California Town Squeezes Water From A Drought

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104445257/104527855" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A California Town Squeezes Water From A Drought

A California Town Squeezes Water From A Drought

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/104445257/104527855" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep. This spring, we're bringing you stories about water in the West. California's in the third year of drought, and many places are rationing water. This morning, we take you to two places with very different approaches. First, we go to Northern California and the small coastal community of Bolinas, which is threatening drastic steps against residents who fail to limit their water use. John McChesney reports.

JOHN MCCHESNEY: It's not easy to find Bolinas. It's even harder to find its source of water. Only a local like Bill Pierce could locate the little creek that slakes the village thirst. Pierce has worked for Bolinas Public Utilities for 25 years. After driving up a narrow jeep trail, we walk through dense stands of old growth Douglas fir and stop in a little clearing.

We're standing here at a very small pond.

Mr. BILL PIERCE (Bolinas Public Utilities): It's not very big. It's 20 feet wide and about 28 feet long and three feet deep.

MCCHESNEY: The babbling brook you hear feeds the pond that was dammed up in the 1920s.

Mr. PIERCE: It's babbling, and it should be roaring right now.

MCCHESNEY: Back in January, it was a trickle, as Bolinas passed through one of the driest winter periods on record. One of the town's emergency reservoirs was completely dry. Pierce came here every day, watching the creek flow dwindle, and he finally realized

Mr. PIERCE: We're in deep trouble here. Basically, we were out of water. We just haven't consumed it all yet.

MCCHESNEY: Pierce figured that if didn't rain some more, Bolinas would run out of water by early spring. So he calculated the amount of water available then, which needed to be spread out over 300 days and divided it by the 600 households in town.

Mr. PIERCE: And came up with 150 gallons per, day per house.

MCCHESNEY: The average American home uses at least twice that amount. And in Bolinas, the mandated 150 gallons was per household, regardless of how many people lived there. To enforce the rationing, the town randomly checked water meters every day. And if you went over, you got a written notice. You were only allowed to go over your limit twice.

Mr. PIERCE: And then the third notice was your water would be shut off.

MCCHESNEY: That's a pretty dramatic gesture to make.

Mr. PIERCE: Well, there's only so much water. We have never been here before. This is new ground for us. It's new ground for most water districts.

MCCHESNEY: Even before the rationing began, even household that was already consuming more than the limit got a personal notification.

Ms. MAUD ZIMMER: I was very surprised, because not everybody got the letter hand-delivered to their house. And we were one of them.

MCCHESNEY: Maud Zimmer, her husband Bob Demmerle and two daughters live in a house that Bob built with water conservation in mind: low-flow toilets, front-loader washer, and so. But that wasn't enough. So they started watching every drop of water. A lot of it was just common sense - soaking dirty dishes in a bucket of soapy water during the day, turning off the water after wetting a toothbrush, flushing infrequently and capturing rainwater for the garden. And most important, the family began to do something few Americans ever do.

Mr. BOB DEMMERLE: Yeah, so this is the meter. I came out for around, maybe, 35 days in a row and read the meter every morning.

MCCHESNEY: Before the rationing kicked in, did you ever come out and look at this meter?

Mr. DEMMERLE: I never came out and looked at it. So, in many ways, it's embarrassing, but mostly for our family was letting it run down the drain.

MCCHESNEY: But a lot less is lost now, and the family was among the 98 percent of Bolinas that complied with the rationing.

Mr. SETH KLEIN (Bolinas Utility District): Now, to the next one.

MCCHESNEY: Seth Klein with the Bolinas Utility District has been reading meters here for over a decade. He's out for the first meter reading since the restrictions were lifted.

Mr. KLEIN: six cubic feet is the reading.

MCCHESNEY: After all the calculations were tallied, the town is still running just below the ration, and the Zimmer-Demmerles are using about a hundred gallons a day less than what they used last year. That's encouraging, but Seth Klein knows the recent winter rain was only a reprieve.

Mr. KLEIN: With the summer coming, I'm very concerned that we're really one major emergency away from draining our storage tanks and having a major crises.

Unidentified Woman: Raise your hand if you know where the reservoir is, and you know where

MCCHESNEY: To avoid future crises, Bolinas is training its future water users, like these 10- and 11-year-olds at the town's elementary school.

Unidentified Child #1: We started doing simple things like taking short showers and maybe putting a bucket in the shower and using that to flush the toilet.

Unidentified Child #2: And, like, only flush the toilet if you're going number two.

MCCHESNEY: During a ration period, Principal Leo Kostelnik posted the school's water usage every day by the bathrooms every day by the bathrooms. He says the students got a good lesson when a tour group of 11 people dropped by for a bathroom pit stop.

Mr. LEO KOSTELNIK (Elementary School Principal): And they used more water in 15 minutes than we use in two days.

MCCHESNEY: Kostelnik says his goal is teach the kids that water conservation isn't just a reaction to a crises. It's a way of life.

For NPR News, I'm John McChesney.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.