Water agencies serving Sonoma and Marin counties are pooling water-conservation efforts with agriculture and local businesses and industry groups to promote changes in attitudes toward water use among residents and the business community.

The roots of this effort tap the previous California drought several years ago, but the dire situation of this drought, stretching into its fourth year, have encouraged organizers of the newest alliance, called the North Bay Water Sustainability Coalition, to open the spigot on public awareness about long-term catchments for water-wasting.

“Each of us needs to do our part, and we can do our part,” said Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of North Bay Leadership Council, a coalition member and an employer-led public-policy group whose nearly four dozen members employ more than 25,000, speaking at a press conference for the launch of the coalition July 9. “We have to act now to secure our water future.”

Other coalition members include Sonoma County Alliance, North Bay Leadership Council, Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce and Sonoma County Winegrowers. Helping the group to communicate with the public and business community are media partner Sonoma Media Investments, which owns the Journal, Press Democrat, Petaluma Argus-Courier and Sonoma Index-Tribune, and Sonoma-Marin Saving Water Partnership.

The partnership (savingwaterpartnership.org) represents 10 water utilities in Sonoma and Marin counties that have joined together to provide a regional approach to water use efficiency. It was formed in late 2010 to comply with The Water Conservation Act of 2009, which mandated a 20 percent reduction in personal water consumption by 2020. Though Governor Brown declared a three-year drought ended in March 2011, the organization continued on, nudging local communities toward more efficient water use.

Long-term reductions are going to require a change in “culture of water use that is not in line with reality,” said Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore, also director of Sonoma County Water Agency, a key member of the utilities partnership as supplier of Russian River Basin water to more than 600,000 people in Sonoma and Marin counties.

He spoke at the coalition launch event, held at the Santa Rosa Friedman’s Home Improvement store in conjunction with one of the partnership’s “Drought Driveup” public-awareness events. Another such event was held July 22 in the city of Sonoma.

“No system will save us, unless we deal with our demand,” Gore said. “Business needs to think about recycling water three or four times before it goes back to the soil profile.”

The water agency recently started offering residents the option of having their water use audited to find ways to save water. Such an option is a change in landscaping, with drought-tolerant plants and drip irrigation replacing turf, in line with the Water Wise program.

No. 1 on the tips list being promoted by the coalition and partnership is letting lawns go “golden,” in other words, cutting off most or all water. Doing that for small lawns in Santa Rosa cut household water usage to 2,000–3,000 gallons a month from 5,000–7,000, said Mayor John Sawyer at the launch event. Water use overall in the city has fallen 41 percent per person from 62 gallons in 1996, and Santa Rosa and other members of the utilities partnership have cut water use by one-third since the group formed, he said.

“We applaud our reductions,” he said. “The coalition will allow us to reach out to companies and their employees and their families.”

Brian Ling, executive director of Sonoma County Alliance, the county’s largest business group and whose members have roughly 50,000 employees, said other organization are interested in joining the coalition, including the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

North Coast farming, now dominated by the wine, has transformed how much water is used in local agriculture, said Karissa Kruse, president of Sonoma County Winegrowers. Of the 25 acre-feet of historically typical annual rainfall in Sonoma County, less than half — 9–12 acre-feet — is consumed by the vines on an average property, with the rest going into the aquifer or watershed, she noted.

“This isn’t your grandfather’s wine industry,” she said at the coalition launch event, as a light rain shower ironically intensified overhead. The unusual storm dropped just a trace amount of rain, in a year with far-below-average rainfall.

“Neither the irony of this [rainfall today] and the hope of a wet winter will get us through this,” Gore said at the outset of the press conference.

Steve Falk, CEO of Sonoma Media Investments, pledged to give ongoing coverage of water-conservation tips and news in the publications.