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The $500 leak
June 30, 2014, 05:00 AM By Sue Lempert

We received a call and a bill from the California Water Service Company last week notifying us that our water usage had gone up from a low of 39 to an extraordinary high of 80 units. This was a double whammy. Not only the huge fine but despite our best efforts to conserve — sprinklers on only once a week, less time in the shower, full dishwasher and washing machine loads, no water left running while brushing teeth, etc. something had gone terribly wrong. In addition, we had been away during 10 days of the month when our meter registered this increase. I had also written several columns on how to conserve water so this was a low blow.

Cal Water came out to double check the meter again. In two days, we had lost more water than we should. Checked our sprinkler system and discovered minor malfunctions in two, but not enough to account for the big jump in usage. The service man also gave me some blue water tablets to test for toilet leaks. Sure enough, soon after the tablets were placed in the tank, the blue dye appeared in the base, which signified a leak. We turned the water off and debated whether to get a plumber to fix it — surely another $200 plus cost — or to bite the bullet and get a modern fixture. We live in a very old house with very old plumbing.

So we have turned off the sprinklers and decided for now to let the lawn turn brown. This isn’t a new idea. Earlier I had contacted BAWSCA, the Bay Area Water Supply and Conservation Agency, and asked for their brochure on “ Lawn be Gone.” If you meet certain criteria and inspections, it is possible to receive a rebate of 75 cents per square foot of converted lawn with a maximum payment of $1,000 for a single-family home.

You need to have an approved plan of how you are going to replace your lawn and what plants you have in mind for the new landscaping. The plants must be on the BAWSCA-approved list and they must be low-water use. You find the list online. It is not available in hard copy because it goes on for 71 pages. I started checking the list against my Sunset Garden Book to see what the listed plants looked like and if they could exist in shade. I never got past the As, the list is so long. So we headed out to a local nursery to see if they could show us some shade plants which didn’t need much water. The first nursery came up with three suggestions. Only one was on the BAWSCA list. The second nursery showed us shade plants which I knew needed a lot of water. So we will visit more and hope to come up with some good matches. It is too bad BAWSCA doesn’t make these lists available to nurseries. For the neophyte gardener, it is tough going.

We still don’t have the complete answer as to what went wrong. The good news is that when Cal Water returned to check our meter after turning off the sprinklers and water to the leaking toilet, we had not lost any water. The bad news. It will be a costly fix. In the meantime, we are joining many others in letting our lawn turn brown. It has almost become a status symbol. But fair warning. A leak can be expensive! Don’t wait for that unwelcomed call from Cal Water but check your meter regularly.


Next month, eight fortunate middle school students will be attending Tech Trek Camp at Stanford University. The program was established by the American Association of Women (AAUW) to address the lack of women entering science and technology.

Teagan Browne and Kara Shannon will be attending from Abbott Middle School, Elyssa Samayoa and Sophia Guevara from Borel, Javia Stokesberry and Emily Gavidia from Bayside Stem Academy and Laurine Aldairy and Alexendra Chin from Bowditch.

During the week, the young women will do hands-on experiments, program robots, meet professional women and learn about financing for college. In the fall, the scholarship winners will share their experiences with AAUW members and community partners including Boston Private Bank that helped finance the program.

Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at



Tags: water, plants, meter, bawsca, women, sprinklers,

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