Water-Saving Tips

Did you know that approximately 60% of residential water use in Southern California is applied to landscapes? Did you know that half of that water is wasted due to over-watering and runoff? Old, inefficient sprinkler systems can easily be wasting hundreds of gallons of water, spraying the house wall, sidewalk, and applying water too quickly leading to runoff. There are many ways to use water more efficiently in your landscape.

Fix All Leaks Immediately

  • During the colder months, check your water usage on your water bill. If a family of four exceeds 12,000 gallons per month, you may have a leak.
  • Check your water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used. If the meter changes, you may have a leak. Visit otaywater.gov/how-to-read-your-meter to learn how to track your water use.
  • Place a few drops of food coloring in the toilet tank and wait 10 minutes without flushing. If color appears in the bowl, you have a leak.
  • Examine faucet gaskets and pipe fittings for any water on the outside of the pipe to check for surface leaks.

Take Advantage of Rebates and Incentives

Rebates for high-efficiency clothes washers and toilets, rotary sprinkler nozzles, turf replacement, and other devices are on a first-come, first-serve basis and are subject to availability of funds. Don’t delay. To estimate and apply for a rebate, click here.

Monitor your Irrigation

Irrigation accounts for up to 60% of your monthly water use. As much as half of that water is wasted due to over-watering or runoff. Learn to adjust your irrigation controller to avoid over-watering (user manuals for most models can be found online). Check soil moisture regularly and adjust your watering schedule monthly. Turn your irrigation system off when rain is projected. Also, check sprinklers regularly. Look for broken and clogged heads, or overspray. Consider upgrading to rotary sprinkler nozzles, a drip irrigation system, or a weather “Smart” irrigation controller. For rebates on irrigation devices, click here.


Save water by manually turning on your sprinklers and checking for obstructions such as tall grass, leaves or branches, broken or clogged heads, or over-spray. If your sprinklers are misting, your water pressure is too high. Standard fixed pop-up sprinklers can also apply water too quickly and be hard to adjust, leading to runoff, over-spray onto the house, fences, or the sidewalk.

Rotating sprinkler nozzles typically apply water at half an inch per hour, which is three times less than the amount of water applied by standard fixed spray pop-up sprinklers. This lower application rate of rotating nozzles results in less runoff and allows the water to readily be absorbed by the soil. These sprinkler nozzles also distribute water more uniformly since their design provides streams of water that are less vulnerable to windy conditions. A $4 per nozzle rebate is also available.

Adjust your watering schedule at least once a month. If you see runoff after only a few minutes, shorten your watering times and use multiple start times to apply the right amount of water. If you are unsure how much to water your grass, roses, or drought-tolerant plants, use the Landscape Water Use Calculator and respond to all the required data fields. If rain is in the forecast, turn off your irrigation system and leave it off for at least 48 hours after any measurable rainfall.

When to Water

The need for water also varies widely depending on the plant. For turf grass, do not begin watering again until the top one to two inches of soil are dry. It’s okay to let lawns show signs of stress in the midst of this extended drought. Lawns that lose their green luster will rejuvenate with the next irrigation cycle or rain.

Succulents and drought tolerant plants, on the other hand, require dry soil and won’t need water for a month, or even months, after the rain. The first basic irrigation scheduling rule for succulents or drought tolerant plans is never water if the soil is still wet. For established drought tolerant plants, this is the worst possible thing to do.

Plants wilt for any number of reasons other than needing water. Wilting in established drought tolerant plants is often the first sign of too much water. Roots die from too much water, then the plant wilts from lack of water uptake. Some drought tolerant plans also fold their leaves on hot afternoons to conserve water, which can be mistaken for wilting. Never assume a plant needs to be watered because it looks wilted. Check to see if the soil is moist first.

Smart Irrigation Controller

Consider investing in a weather-based irrigation controller that records daily climate data to modify the watering schedule to apply water only when necessary. Weather-based or “smart” irrigation controllers work in one of two ways: they either have an on-site weather monitor that detects local temperature data and measures rainfall or relies on a service that transmits local weather data to the controller. Using either option, smart controllers adjust the watering schedule to your daily climate conditions. To receive a rebate and see a list of qualifying products, click here.

Ground Covers

Most lawns in Southern California are cool-season fescue varieties that require a lot of water to survive during the warm summer months. To save water, look for alternatives to your water-guzzling grass. Alternative options include warm-season grasses like Bermuda or St. Augustine that need 30% less water or drought-tolerant plants that need approximately 60% less water. Dymondia, buffalo grass, and carex are also groundcovers and low water use alternatives to grass.

Eliminate Unused Turf

Remove unused turf and focus efficient irrigation practices on active turf, trees, or vegetable gardens. A drought forces everyone to make difficult decisions because restricting irrigation will stress plants and kill some turf. Prioritize areas that will and won’t get water during summer, irrigating only high-value areas.

Looking for ideas on how to make your landscape more water-efficient? Visit the Water Conservation Garden in El Cajon for a free docent-guided tour of their garden exhibits — native habitat, compost, veggie, and succulent — for ideas and inspiration. The Garden also offers landscape design consultations with a licensed professional and various landscaping-related classes. Learn more at thegarden.org.