Winter Water Saving Tips: The Summer is Over, But Not the Drought

By Loren McDonald

As winter approaches for residents of Diablo Valley, now is not the time to lose sight that California continues to experience one of its worst droughts in recorded history.

Governor Brown declared a state of emergency in January, which included a voluntary request that citizens reduce water usage by 20%. Locally, the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD) asked customers to reduce usage by 10%, and while they have met the goal, it really isn’t enough.

Hopefully, winter will bring plenty of snow and rain to Northern California, but we can’t count on it and residents must continue to reduce our use of water both inside and outside of our homes.

The average person living in a single-family home within the East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), used 175 gallons per day in 2013. That’s a lot of water, but there are several ways, many costing nothing or very little, that can reduce your water usage significantly.

Get a Handle on Your Current Water Usage

The first step in saving water is to understand your current usage and where opportunities exist to cut back. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

  • Read your water bill and compare previous years and billing periods.
  • Are your summer months off the charts? Have you reduced or increased your usage in the past year?
  • Compare winter months’ bills to summer months to get a handle on your irrigation usage.
  • Test for leaks. Place a toothpick on your water meter and then don’t use any water for 30 minutes and look to see if the needle moves. If it does, you have one or more leaks inside or outside your home. If you have separate valves for the yard and house, turn off one so you can isolate if the leaks are inside or outside and then watch again to see if the meter needle still moves.
  • Test your toilets for leaks. A kit with a blue die tablet is available from EBMUD.

Once you have a sense of your water usage and if you have any leaks, create a game plan to reduce your consumption. Tackle bad family habits first, such as taking long showers and overwatering your yard. Depending on your budget, replace inefficient appliances, showerheads and toilets.

In your yard

Thirty percent of residential water usage in the United States is devoted to outdoor uses, with the majority of this used for irrigation, according to the EPA. And half of outdoor water use is typically wasted according to the EBMUD.

To reduce your winter outdoor water usage, consider the following tips:

  • Turn off sprinklers and use your manual mode to turn them on for a day here or there during any lengthy winter dry spells.
  • Replace inefficient sprinklers with drip irrigation.
  • Upgrade a conventional irrigation controller to a smart system – either weather- or soil moisture-based.
  • Fix leaks and any broken pipes. Dig up those buried sprinklers and cap them off if not needed.
  • Replace thirsty lawns with drought-resistant trees and plants.
  • Give rain barrels a try – perhaps for a winter vegetable garden or raised bed near your rain gutters.
  • Cover your garden with mulch and put that compost you’ve been brewing to good use to improve soil condition.

Inside the Home

About half of the water used indoors is from the bathroom, according to the American Water Works Association Research Foundation. Here are a few tips to cut back water use inside your house:

  • Toilets are typically the highest user of water inside the home, from 28% to 40%, according the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Replace older toilets that might use 3 to 6 gallons per flush (GPF) with models that use 1.28 to 1.6 GPF. Don’t worry, many of these low GPF toilets flush better than your older, water guzzlers.
  • Replace older showerheads that typically flow at 2.5 gallons per minute (GPM) with a newer low-flow type that emits as low as 1.5 GPM. Many use aerating techniques to make the water flow feel just as powerful as the older, higher GPM models.
  • Capture the cold water flowing to your showerhead in a bucket or jug. Use this “warming-up water” in the winter to water houseplants, outdoor containers and winter gardens.
  • Wash clothes and dishes using full loads. If your appliances are old, consider replacing them with more energy and water-efficient models.
  • Install low-flow water faucet aerators in bathrooms and kitchen sinks.
  • Turn off the tap when hand washing dishes and brushing your teeth.
  • Use this winter to get your water usage under control by changing family habits and replacing inefficient toilets, showerheads and water-sapping lawns. Many of these purchases also qualify for rebates from EBMUD. (

Reducing your water usage is not only becoming a necessity in California, but also saves you money on your water bill. So get started and start saving!

Loren McDonald is a Danville resident, member of the Sustainable Danville Area organization and blogs about green issues at

Reprinted by permission: Danville Today News

Preparing for the Ban: 3 Alternatives to Using Single-Use Plastic Bags

Sustainable Danville Area – Tip of the Month

By Loren McDonald

On August 29, the California State Legislature passed SB 270, a bill that will prohibit the distribution of single-use plastic bags in grocery stores, convenience stores and drugstores. Governor Brown, signed the bill on September 30th, but the American Progressive Bag Alliance (a coalition of manufacturers) have taken steps to gather signatures and qualify for a referendum to repeal SB 270 on the November 2016 ballot.”


According to Californians Against Waste, there are currently 98 ordinances in the state that already ban plastic bags in 122 cities and counties. Locally Walnut Creek passed such an ordinance in March of this year and in August, the Danville Town Council has directed staff to prepare a local measure for review. Learn more about this at and send comments and questions to


So What’s The Problem With Plastic Bags?


Single-use plastic bags are convenient for consumers and inexpensive for owners of stores, however, their drawbacks are significant and include:


  • Plastic bags are believed to take hundreds of years to decompose.
  • In California, CalRecycle estimates that only about 3% of plastic bags are recycled.
  • They are a key source of litter, partially driven by their light weight and ease of flying away.
  • According to the Worldwatch Institute, each year tens of thousands of whales, birds, seals, and turtles die from contact with ocean-borne plastic bags.
  • They are made from non-renewable natural gas and petroleum.


3 Alternatives to Plastic Bags


One of the issues with single-use plastic bags is that they aren’t just used to carry items home from the supermarket, fast-food restaurants or pharmacies. Once at home, many consumers like to re-use these bags for other purposes, primarily to line trash baskets and for dog waste.


The following are some alternatives to the plastic bag for the above common uses:


  1. Re-usable shopping bags: With or without bans on plastic bags, consumers have been adopting the use of reusable bags in a big way, appreciating their larger size, durability and strength.


The biggest challenge for most consumers to make the switch is to remember to bring them into the store. Here are a few tips to consider:


  • Buy several bags and keep at least three or four in your vehicles.
  • When you get out of your car to go shopping, simply grab the bags and go. After a few months, this process will become second nature, and you will rarely forget to take them.
  • Wash your bags on a regular basis. Use soap and water when washing by hand – many can be tossed into your washing machine.
  • Preferably, purchase a ‘Made in the USA’ cloth-type bag, made of cotton or similar materials. Alternatively, opt for a bag made of recycled materials.


  1. Bi-degradable dog waste bags: One of the most common complaints about plastic bag bans is from people who like to use them for their dog waste. But if you put your dog’s waste into a plastic bag, then A) That bag is definitely not useable; and more importantly B) It is no longer recyclable.


The best alternative is to purchase biodegradable dog waste bags. Depending on the material used, biodegradable bags will break down typically within a few months or 1-2 years. They are widely available including most pet supply stores and online retailers.


If you buy in bulk, biodegradable bags only cost about a penny more than non-biodegradable bags. If you use 2 bags per day you would pay less than $4 per year (the cost of one latte).


  1. Paper or biodegradable compost and trash bags. A key problem with using plastic bags in trash bins and baskets in your kitchen, den, bathrooms and garage, is they inhibit the decomposition of items in the bag in the landfill.


A better approach then is to reuse compostable paper bags from the supermarket or other store. Even better, however, is to purchase biodegradable trash bags. Depending on the brand and quantity you purchase, 13-gallon kitchen or smaller 3-gallon biodegradable bags will typically cost just a few pennies more per bag than the traditional plastic trash bag. Biodegradable trash bags are a bit harder to find in your local store than plastic trash bags, so I like to order several boxes at a time from, which will last me for a year or so.


Like the end of using chlorofluorocarbons in aerosol spray cans in the late 80s, single-use plastic bags are rapidly being phased out across the U.S. and world. The transition away from plastic bags for both merchants and consumers will be an easy one, as the alternatives are many and widely available today.


We want to hear about your alternatives to plastic bags, write to us at or visit us at



Loren McDonald is a Danville resident, member of the Sustainable Danville Area and blogs about green issues at

Reprinted by permission: Danville Today News

Friendly Options for Getting To School

The kids have been back in school for over a month and are settling down to a routine.  But does the routine include an environmentally friendly option for getting to and from school?  Forty years ago, over 50% of kids in the US rode their bikes to school. In 2004, only 3% of kids rode their bikes to school. Biking and walking has been replaced by parents zipping their kids to and from school and to other activities by car. This may seem safe and hassle-free for the kids, but its prevents kids from getting needed exercise, adds considerably to traffic congestion (think Danville Blvd. / Hartz Avenue at 8:00 am Monday through Friday), sends a cocktail of pollutants into the air that we all breath, and emits greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Considering all of these factors, the “true cost” of driving our kids everywhere is more expensive than we might think.

Fortunately, there are many environmentally friendly options for getting your kids to school and many compelling benefits for those that try them.

Bike or Walk – Walking and biking are great alternatives for students that live a few miles from their school. These activities can promote responsible behavior, awareness of the outdoor environment and help students stay physically fit. Alamo and Danville has a number of bike trails and routes, which are located near our schools. Investigate possible biking or walking routes. If you live far away from the school, but want your child to start to experience walking/riding, find a safe place to drop them off and pick them up as far away from school as is appropriate for their ability.

If your child plans to bike, take one or two trial runs with him or her and make sure he or she has the right size helmet, working brakes, properly inflated tires, appropriate attire, and enough time to get to school. Also, pay attention to weather reports for back-up plans in case of bad weather at the end of the school day. Help your child learn the rules of the road and ride in specially designated areas when possible. For bike safety tips, go to

Form a “Walking School Bus” or “Bicycle Train” – A walking school bus is a group of children walking to school with one or more adults. The bus leaves when the farthest family begins to walk the route and pick up kids along the way. It can be as informal as two families taking turns walking their children to school or as structured as a planned route with meeting points, a timetable and a schedule of trained volunteers. A variation on the walking school bus is a bicycle train where a group of children and adult leaders ride together to school. Learn more about how to create safe routes to school at

Form a “School Pool” – This takes a little coordination, but reduces your drives per week and definitely cuts down on energy use and air pollution. Carpooling also fosters a sense of community among riders. A carpool can give students a sense of responsibility about being on time and an arena where they can practice their ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-you’s’. Conversations in the car allow parents a chance to get to know what’s happening at school in a way a single child rarely shares. Learn more about carpooling to school at:

Take a Public Bus – Riding the public bus can be a wonderful experience for a child. Safe and reliable, there are public CCCTA buses in town that stop at or near many of our schools. The CCCTA school bus routes can be seen at: bus fares for CCCTA are $20.00 for a 12-ride pass and $60.00 for a monthly pass. One great source for free bus tickets is 511 Contra Costa  They will give 2 – $20 bus tickets to a handful of kids who apply in the beginning of the year in exchange for filling out a survey at the end of the year.

Other Tips – If you do drive (hopefully in a carpool) please remember to turn off your car while waiting. An idling engine operates far below its peak temperature, creating fuel residue in the engine, and generating air pollution right where kids are congregating. Another suggestion is to try to combine a trip to school with errands that you need to run. This will save time, reduce your total driving, and reduce the number of times you need to start a “cold car.” Starting a car after it has been sitting for more than an hour creates up to five times more pollution than when the engine is warm.

Preserving Quality Time – Many parents consider one-on-one time with their kids in the car to be a special time to visit. But there may be alternatives that are just as special or even better. You may consider talking with your child about alternatives which could preserve this specialness, knowing that such a change might enhance your child’s development while at the same time improving the future health of your child’s natural environment.

Have other ideas to ditch the car for your ride to school?  Send them to , twitter @greendanville or

Reprinted by permission: Danville Today News

Brown is the New Green

Tip of the Month – August 2014

By Cynthia Ruzzi, Sustainable Danville Area 

Homeowner associations can no longer fine residents who stop watering their lawns or take other conservation measures during droughts under state legislation passed recently.  While yards must still be maintained and neat – eliminate dry grass and weeds that might be flammable – there’s no requirement to keep a lawn green or even to keep the lawn. We ‘lost our lawn’ the last time a 20 percent water reduction was required to preserve this very limited and precious resource. Although the earth is comprised of over 70% water, 97% of that is salt water, 2% is frozen in ice caps and glaciers, which means only about 1% is fresh water available for human use. My husband and I still chuckle whenever we see somebody spending their weekend mowing their lawn.  And, while the drought has made it acceptable and even trendy to be ‘Brown’, going ‘lawn-less’- doesn’t have to mean being colorless.  Check out this lovely gallery of native and drought tolerant gardens posted by the East Bay Municipal Water Utility District (EBMUD)

EBMUD drought tolerant gardenEarn ‘Cash for Grass’ from EBMUD’s landscape and irrigation equipment rebates.  Upgrade your yard, replacing grass with California native and climate-appropriate plants, or permeable hardscapes with materials that allow water to pass through.  A single residence can earn up to $2,500 to create low water use landscaping, improve irrigation efficiency and LOWER your water bill.  Commercial properties and multi-unit residences with more than 5 units can earn up to $20,000. Get all the details by visiting

We found the EBMUD publication Plants and Landscapes for Summer-Dry climates of the San Francisco Bay Region an invaluable resource during the plant selection process.  EBMUD also has a resource list of local nurseries, demonstration gardens, classes and events, and books where you can learn about and view native plants.  Additionally, some local nurseries will design a lawn conversion planting plan for a fee and then rebate the fee as credit toward plants purchased.

Looking for other ways to lower the water impact of your yard? Instead of using fresh, drinking water in your yard, consider a gray water system – safely and legally.  Reusing the water that usually goes down the drain after bathing or laundry can keep your landscape healthy and   recharge our depleted groundwater sources. Up to 80 percent of indoor water can be captured and reused as gray water.  EBMUD offers rebates to offset the costs of installing hardware, equipment and systems that result in predictable water savings.    Learn how you can save water and dollars, regulations, health and safety, soaps and products at a Gray water workshop sponsored by EBMUD on Wednesday, August 13th or Wednesday, September 10th.

Even if you’re not ready to go native, you can save dollars by watering your lawn deeply instead of daily.  It’s also best to water in the early morning hours before dawn to give the soil and plant roots adequate time to absorb the water instead of being evaporated by the sun first.  However, it’s best not to water at night to prevent fungus and disease that is encouraged in the wet of foggy nights. For more helpful instructions, check out this helpful guide from EBMUD.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and East Bay Mud (EBMUD) have many more water conservation resources on their websites. To learn more about how you and your family can conserve water, please visit EPA and EBMUD, respectively.

Let us know if you have questions, write to us at or join the conversation on Twitter or Facebook:  @greendanville and  Post a picture of your ‘lose the lawn’ project and tips you have for our followers.

For more information, visit: Save Water and Energy with a Lawn Conversion  and Reasons to Convert Your Lawn

Reprinted by permission: Danville Today News


We Interrupt This Summer Vacation…




More than ever, we need to hear the voice of people that understand the importance of taking action to preserve our environment for our children and future generations.
A dedicated group of volunteers have been working with Sustainable Danville Area to encourage the Town of Danville to pass a local ordinance to prohibit single-use plastic bags from all retail stores and restaurants within our community. (Yes, we will still have plastic bags for meat purchases and produce, and probably Styrofoam take-out containers, but we need to start someplace).
THAT’S WHY WE NEED YOUR HELP…Whether you are a resident of Danville or a valued visitor and shopper, we need your voice to be heard.  Please join us at one or more of the following 3 informational meetings at the: VETERANS MEMORIAL BUILDING, 115 EAST PROSPECT AVENUE
The Town Staff will provide an overview of the ordinance, answer questions and take public comment.
Please attend one or more of these meetings to show your support for a LOCAL plastic bag ban.  Each person will have three minutes to ask their questions and demonstrate the importance of this local measure to our community.
If you cannot attend any of the meetings, please show your support with an email sent to:
Just one more thing…will you please share A LINK to this Call to Action with everyone within your network?  Now more than ever – we need to hear the voices of people that care.
Thank you so much for your time,
Cynthia Ruzzi, Darlene Gayler and Cindy Egan





Inside Cosmetics

Tip of the Month


Have you seen the short video, ‘The story of cosmetics’ by Annie Leonard?  I was floored by the facts presented so simply.  Even though I am someone who spends a lot of time reading food labels and trying to stay away from processed foods, I rarely stop to consider what my latest skin care regimen (read wrinkle reducer) might be doing to my health and that of the environment.

Keeping your family healthy should include more than focusing on what they put into their bellies.  Have you considered what skincare products might do to them?   At home, look at the labels of your favorite products – while you might have fun trying to pronounce words like, METHYLISOTHIAZOLINONE you might be shocked to find this chemical is linked to immunotoxicity. Hopefully, that will be enough for you to ‘wash that shampoo right out of your hair’ and look more closely at the other products you’re using.  Honestly, if you can’t say it, should you spray it, slather it or even dab it?

Other parents have come to similar conclusions.  Dara O’Rourke, a professor of environmental and labor policy at the UC Berkeley was prompted to start the company, GoodGuide, after realizing he didn’t know what was in the sunscreen he had applied on his young daughter’s face.  After checking analysis that most consumers don’t have easy access to; Dara found the lotion contained an endocrine disrupter, two skin irritants and a carcinogen activated by sunlight.  Now GoodGuide helps consumers make purchasing decisions by providing online and mobile information on the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies.  While shopping, I can use my iPhone to scan the bar codes on the items I’m considering purchasing and the GoodGuide application gives me a score on the product’s safety. And to help teens understand the importance of non-toxic sunscreen here’s an easy to read guide from the Environmental Working Group.

The average adult woman uses 12 different products daily and for the average teen girl that number is closer to 20.  When you figure that each product averages 20 chemicals (some not required to be listed), that’s approximately 400 potential toxins our teens are exposed to daily.  This means that when our teenage girls are most susceptible to chemical damage to their maturing bodies, they are exposing themselves to higher levels of potentially harmful cosmetic ingredients.   A few years ago, the Environmental Working Group did a very readable and relevant study about the burden of hormone altering chemicals on teen girls:  Hmm, if we aren’t moved to free ourselves from the beauty industry’s hold on our teens’ fragile psyches, how about protecting their physical health from unknown and hidden chemicals?

Remember if a chemical is not ingested, then they are not reviewed rigorously by the FDA.  Skincare products can use terms like ‘Herbal, Natural and Organic’ without the legal restrictions applied to food.   If you use a body lotion every day on your largest organ, your skin, you can expose yourself through absorption to a significant amount of toxins.  We can start by cutting down our exposure to toxins with our water and food, but don’t forget about what we apply to our skin.

Look in your cabinets and check that the products you use aren’t harmful to you and your family.  Don’t forget to check infant care products as many leading baby shampoos have formaldehyde and dioxane.  And while you’re ‘cleaning house’, please consider replacing antibacterial soaps which often contain triclosan, a carcinogen linked to developmental and reproductive toxicity.  Visit GoodGuide at or use the cosmetic safety database provided by the Environmental Working Group for guidance and to check what’s in your products.

Once you’ve cleaned those cabinets for your health, go one step further and make sure aren’t ‘eating’ your exfoliate. Popular cosmetic manufacturers use microbeads in facial scrubs, soaps – even toothpaste – to add an abrasive cleaning quality to their product.  Microbeads are tiny bits of plastic that are designed to wash down your sink and shower drain as you use the cleaning product.  Unfortunately, these tiny bits of plastic also make it past our water treatment facilities and flow by billions of particles into our local waterways. Microbeads sponge toxic chemical pollutants along their travels and become snacks for fish that are caught for human consumption.  So, if you like to eat fresh water fish or seafood, there’s a pretty good chance those microbeads and their pollutants wind up in your stomach. Check whether you’re skin products contain microbeads by using EWG’s iphone app Skindeep or visit their website,  Have a favorite natural, home-made skincare routine?  Share it with us at or at and remember to visit us at

Reprinted with permission from Danville Today News/Alamo Today:

Protect Your Skin

Tip of the Month – June 2014

By Deborah Weiss

This past winter, I went into a local drugstore to buy sunscreen.  I was surprised to be told that the store doesn’t carry sunscreen until the spring.  Even if you aren’t going to get sunburned, unprotected sun exposure can still trigger the sun’s aging effects and can lead to a higher risk of skin cancer.  You need to apply sunscreen as part of your daily routine regardless of the weather.

The sun, not time, is the skin’s greatest adversary.   The sun’s rays lead to more than 80 percent of the changes that result in aging.  The sun’s radiation includes two types of ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB.  UVBs are the more potent rays, leading to sunburn and skin cancer. The sun’s UVA rays are responsible for tanning but also penetrate deeper into the skin causing the effects of aging like wrinkles and spots.  These rays are not just a product of direct sun but of all natural light, capable of reaching the skin through glass, clouds and smog.

So, which sunscreen to use?   The SPF (“Sun Factor Protection”) of a sunscreen measures its ability to screen out skin damaging ultraviolet rays, primarily UVBs.  Some sunscreens claim to be “broad spectrum,” protecting against both types of rays. However, despite such a designation, there are still concerns about any sunscreen’s ability to protect fully against UVA rays.  Despite improved sunscreen usage and labeling, skin cancer is still increasing at disturbing rates.

A super-high SPF factor will not negate the sun’s risks.  An SPF of fifty blocks about 98 percent of the sun’s rays.  Any number above that will not provide significantly more protection.   People often wait too long before reapplying their sunscreens or they stay outside too long, thinking a high SPF protects against many hours of sun exposure.  The big numbers give people a false sense of security.

Dermatologists recommend an SPF of 30 for everyday, and an SPF of 50 if you’re going to participate in outdoor sports.  An SPF of 30 means it would take 30 times longer to burn than if you don’t use any sunscreen.   However, sunscreen is not a panacea.  The only way to avoid the effects of the sun is to stay out of the sun, avoiding the mid-day summer sun, and generally avoiding sun exposure between ten and two p.m.

People are often concerned they will not get enough sun exposure to maintain their Vitamin D levels.  Vitamin D is an important nutrient that helps the body absorb calcium, keeping bones strong.  Because Vitamin D isn’t present in most foods, people use sun exposure to maintain adequate levels.   But maintaining Vitamin D takes only minimal sun exposure.  The Office of Dietary Supplements says it takes only a half hour of sun twice a week to ensure that you have enough Vitamin D.

Active ingredients in sunscreen come in two forms, mineral and chemical.  The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens penetrate the skin.  Laboratory studies have shown that these active ingredients can be hazardous.  For example, the ingredient oxybenzone may cause allergic reactions and disrupt hormones, posing a risk of interference with pregnancies.  Avobenzone, another chemical ingredient, breaks down in sunlight, making it a less effective sunblock compared to other options.

Avoid sunscreens which contain the ingredient Vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate or retinol.  Government data, although disputed, has shown exposure to ingredients containing Vitamin A may accelerate the risk of developing skin cancer.

The top recommended sunscreens contain zinc oxide as the active ingredient because it provides the best protection from UVA rays and has the fewest health concerns.  Plus, zinc oxide does not break down in the sun.  Years ago, zinc oxide sunscreens were unpopular.  They went on in a thick, white coat (think lifeguards’ noses in older movies), but today there are far better versions.

People with sensitive skin are less likely to have a reaction from zinc oxide as opposed to other active ingredients.   As someone with very sensitive skin, a zinc oxide based sunscreen is the only type I can use.  It took some trial and error, but I did find a brand which does not leave a visible white film and which feels pleasant to apply, as opposed to drying.

Stick to a sunscreen in the form of a cream.  It’s important to avoid sunscreens in the forms of powders, pumps and sprays.   You can mistakenly inhale these types of sunscreen, causing them to enter your lungs, and from there the bloodstream.  Health concerns from inhaling sunscreen include the risk of cancer and tissue-damage.

Apply sunscreen cream plentifully and thickly.  For proper protection, you need to use about one shot glass, about two tablespoons, of sunscreenfor your face and body. You should reapply sunscreen every two hours.   And check the expiration date.  Sunscreen generally has a three year lifespan.   Protect areas not covered by sunblock: wear sunglasses and an SPF 30 lip balm.  Don’t forget to protect yourself before your fun in the sun!  And all other times too!