SANTA MONICA — Drops of rain fell on Josephine Miller's 1920s bungalow — a watery relief in the midst of a punishing drought. Instead of flowing into storm drains and washing out to sea, an oversized tank harvested the precious resource to keep her thirsty citrus trees and vegetables from shriveling up on dry days.
Across Santa Monica, backyard rain barrels and cisterns are becoming fashionable. Since 2010, the beach city has doled out 385 rebates to homeowners who direct rainwater back into their gardens as part of a broader effort to become water independent that also includes cleaning up contaminated groundwater and recycling water.
"This is kind of a no-brainer, low-hanging fruit solution for anyone," said Miller, who three years ago installed a 205-gallon water storage container, which resembles an upright accordion.
California is gripped by historic parched conditions that have desiccated farmland, dried up reservoirs and forced rural communities to ration water. A welcome dousing late last month did little to break the arid spell.
Even before this latest drought emergency, some agencies that historically draw their water from the overtapped Colorado River and Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta have taken steps to slash their dependence on water from outside sources and boost their own supplies. Past drought woes, particularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s, have forced some communities to rethink where their water comes from, and they're increasingly realizing local sources are insurance against future dry weather.
Santa Monica, population 92,000, has perhaps the loftiest goal: to completely wean itself off outside water by 2020. The city long depended on its groundwater wells, but supplies became polluted in the mid-1990s from underground gasoline storage tank leaks and the addition of a fuel additive.
The contamination forced Santa Monica to buy most of its water from the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a giant wholesaler that provides drinking water to nearly 19 million people in six counties. Meanwhile, the city used proceeds from settlements with oil companies responsible for the pollution to purge the wells. The cleanup, completed three years ago, allows the city to tap groundwater for up to 70 percent of its water needs.
About 50 miles to the northwest, the semi-agricultural community of Camarillo receives about 60 percent of its water from the State Water Project — a maze of dams, pipes and canals that carries snowmelt from the Sierra Nevada and transports it to points south — that it blends with salty groundwater sources.
The city wants to cut down its imported supplies to 25 percent before 2020 and has invested in a $50 million regional treatment plant that would pump and treat brackish groundwater into drinking water.
"We want local reliability and the ability to control our own destiny," said Lucia McGovern, deputy director of the city's Public Works Department.
The Southern California port city of Long Beach, which relies on outside water for 40 percent of its drinking water, studied the possibility of building a desalination plant, which separates salt from ocean water. But it was too expensive, and the city is now focused on increasing groundwater supplies.
A recent amendment to a court order deciding groundwater rights would allow Long Beach to pump more water. It's in the very early stages of drawing up a multimillion-dollar plan to build miles of pipelines to move the water.
While maximizing groundwater is key to cutting down on distant imports, which can be fickle depending on the weather, it's not an option for every community.
Groundwater is "not available everywhere and it also depends on the quality," said Jennifer Persike, a spokeswoman for the Association of California Water Agencies. "You have to be careful not to overpump it."
While Santa Monica bets on groundwater, it's also investing in other water conservation tactics, including recycling and rain harvesting. Near the touristy Santa Monica Pier, a water recycling plant treats excess irrigation and other urban runoff that is then used to water parks, school grounds and a cemetery.
The city also collects rain. The main library has a 200,000-gallon underground cistern that captures rain to water the gardens. Last year, officials installed a smaller cistern that will fill toilets at a newly built library scheduled to open next month.
Since 1997, the city code requires that new construction and remodeled homes must catch the first quarter-inch of rain.
During a downpour in late February, Miller checked on her cistern, which she bought from a hardware store and installed by rerouting the downspout. She paid $571 for the tank, which is bolted to the side of her house for earthquake safety, and the city reimbursed her $250. As rain funneled from the roof into the beige cistern, water from neighboring houses coursed down the street like a river.
Though Miller's yard consists mostly of cactus and succulents — she's in the process of ripping up the last patch of grass — there are orange, lemon and kumquat trees, and a small vegetable bed of green beans, sweet peas and snap peas that need water. A full tank typically can last for months, allowing Miller to tend to her water-needy trees and vegetables on rainless days.
While rainwater capture does little to affect the water table, it does reduce potable water demand.
"I don't think it's as dramatic as buying an electric car, but if everyone in L.A. did it, imagine the water savings there would be," she said.
Santa Monica officials estimate that rain harvesting, low-flow toilets and other conservation measures save the city about $326,000 per year. If the city becomes self-sufficient by 2020 as planned mainly by tapping groundwater, it is expected to save $3 million per year.
"Every drop counts," water resources manager Gil Borboa said.
California's drought has caught the attention of foreign leaders. During a recent three-day swing through California, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Gov. Jerry Brown that the semi-arid country has no water troubles because it emphasizes desalination, wastewater recycling, irrigation that uses less water than traditional sprinklers and other measures.
Kevin Wattier, Long Beach Water Department general manager, said incentives are important, but there's no substitute for educating people to stop watering sidewalks.
"People need to quit wasting water. It's that simple," he said.