[Note: This article first appeared on the Environmental Design & Construction web site atwww.edcmag.com.]

Water conservation has been a fact of life on California’s Monterey Peninsula for decades. You may not guess it looking at the beautiful greens of the Pebble Beach golf courses, but go into the residential communities of Monterey, Carmel, Pacific Grove and Seaside, and you’ll find drought-tolerant sage, lavender, fescue and succulents where many communities have verdant lawns.

Water use on the Monterey Peninsula averages 70 gallons per person per day. Compare that to a national average of 100 gallons. Water is limited in this community not only due to its semi-arid climate but also because of legal limits on its main source of supply, the Carmel River.

Restrictions on pumping from the Carmel River were put in place by the state in part to protect a threatened subspecies of trout, the Central California Coast Steelhead. Water use on the Monterey Peninsula decreased by more than 30 percent since the limitations were issued in the mid-1990s. In response to the order, golf courses began using recycled water, residents and businesses switched to low-flow toilets, and water rates went up for big users causing them to cut back their use.

While the rest of California scrambles to comply with Gov. Schwarzenegger’s call for a 20% statewide reduction in per capita water use by 2020, residents on the Monterey Peninsula can breathe a sigh of relief – they’ve already achieved it and then some.

But further cutbacks on the Carmel River are threatened, and the community’s water provider, California American Water, must ask its customers to save even more water.

Knowing that approximately 30% of residential water use goes to outdoor watering, the company launched an aggressive outreach campaign, Spring Into Action, in March of 2008, urging residents to delay turning on their sprinklers.

Looking at past consumption records, the company determined that water use varied most during the early months of spring, relative to the amount of rainfall. When the weather starts to warm up and it isn’t raining, people naturally want to water their landscape. But they often underestimate the level of water saturation still remaining in the soil from winter rains.

Through award-wining television, newspaper and radio ads and direct mail to its customers, California American Water spread the message to wait a few more weeks before irrigating. It worked. The amount of water used per inch of rainfall decreased dramatically from previous years with an approximate savings of more than 400 acre-feet of water.

In addition to its public outreach efforts, California American Water provides incentives in the form of $100 to $700 rebates for items such as high-efficiency toilets, cistern systems and smart irrigation controllers, which delay watering until the soil is actually dry. The company also visits homes and businesses to check for leaks, develop individualized outdoor watering schedules and make indoor water-saving recommendations.

Unique circumstances have given the Monterey Peninsula a head start on what is fast becoming the norm for water utilities across the western states and even in parts of the country where rain is not scarce. National interest in water conservation and concerns over climate change are leading water providers throughout the country to create an even stronger message to their customers about the importance of preserving this precious resource.