IF YOU'RE LIKE ME, the first you heard of Alameda's water troubles was back in May when in response to two record dry years the East Bay Municipal Utility District, which supplies water to 1.2 million East Bay customers, announced ambitious new conservation goals. And now some Alamedans are digging deep to come up with water-saving methods.

EBMUD has asked residents to reduce water use by 19 percent for single-family customers and 11 percent for residents of multi-unit dwellings. Many people feel these benchmarks are unfair to the green-thinking, conversation-minded folks who'd already been cutting down on how much water they use. But, really, how can we let EBMUD spend time and energy and money filtering and cleaning and transporting water only to let it race down the drain while we're brushing our teeth for the recommended three minutes? As my kids say from the bathroom door, "Mom! Turn it off!" For those who water large lawns daily, it's easy enough to reduce.


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But for people who've already been taking small short showers, growing native or Mediterranean gardens, and being thoughtful about laundry and dishwashing, reducing the flow is much harder.

EBMUD's new drought rates take effect Aug. 1. The plan exempts the 25 percent of residential customers who are already using fewer than 100 gallons of water a day, but for the rest of us, the price of water will go up 10 percent. So if you cut back by 10 percent, your cost will be stable. But those unable to conserve will pay an increased per-gallon rate, as well as a $2 dollar surcharge for every unit of water used (a unit is 100 cubic feet or 748 gallons).

"We want you to save 19 percent, but if you're saving 10 percent you're going to break even," said EBMUD spokesman Charles Hardy.

By mid-August, customers should receive a letter from EBMUD with their water allocation (a figure based on each household's average use over the past three years). But, says Hardy, if you think you have reason to request a higher conservation target — a new member of the household, a medical condition, a recent move — EBMUD has an appeals system.

"It'll be a process where you can make a legitimate argument about your circumstances" says Hardy.

One of the easiest places to cut down water use is outside. While some Alamedans have already abandoned water-hogging grass for gardens featuring plants that thrive in low water environments, other Alamedans have opted for a return to the days of yore, when people looked below for H2O.

Local historian Woody Minor says that before Alamedans started to receive piped city water in the 1880s, they relied on well water (which, despite how I imagined it, is not salty here).

"You can look at historic photographs and see the tank houses," says Minor.

And many long-time Alamedans tell me that during the drought years of 1977-78 islanders often relied on wells to keep gardens green.

"We dug it out years ago," Bob Woolley told me about the well in his Bay Street back yard. "And we hadn't used it in years, but we're in the process now of fixing it up again."

And Woolley is not alone. If you look carefully around town, you'll start to note signs in windows. "Watered with well water" or "well water." The well in the back yard of Tom and Judy Johansing's Lincoln Avenue home came with the property.

"It's nice knowing we're not using city water to maintain the yard," said Judy.

Eve Pearlman also writes the Alameda Journal Blog, look for news, impressions and opinion at www.ibabuz.com/alamedajournal.