Now Playing

Dublin and San Ramon Keep Their Gardens Blooming With Recycled Water

Beating the drought with a little creativity. 


Read more Smart Cities coverage here.

When Tri-Valley residents learned of impending water cuts last summer, construction worker Keith Lelliott feared he might lose a treasured pastime: his tropical garden. The homemade oasis surrounding his Pleasanton house is a refuge where he and his wife sip wine in the evenings. “You know how some guys play with their cars? My garden is my passion.” Lelliott says. “But it’s tough to keep alive.” Especially in a drought—his burgundy festival grass, red coral bells, and more than 20 palm trees require hundreds of gallons of water every day.

Fortunately, Lelliott lives ten minutes from Dublin San Ramon Services District’s recycled water station, where he backs up his van two to four times a day to fill his 230-gallon tank to the brim. The station, California’s first to provide free recycled water for residential use, draws people from as far as 30 miles away. The water, which looks and smells just like tap water, is unsafe for drinking but ideal for gardening. Nitrates left over from human waste turn the water into a natural plant fertilizer. When the station opened last summer, DSRSD employees estimated there might be a dozen users. Instead, eight hundred people signed up in the first six months, with lines forming at the eighteen nozzles of the silver water pipe.

The station’s runaway success may have come as a surprise, but the demand is understandable. Customers who once spent 60 to 70 percent of their water bill on landscaping are now getting that water for free—with built-in fertilizer. But the appeal goes beyond money. “It’s a sense of community,” says Sue Stephenson, community affairs supervisor at the DSRSD. Customers trade tips on where to find 300-gallon water jugs, and the DSRSD even created a Facebook page at their behest. Pride in the station is evident, and for good reason: its residential customers reused 2.3 million gallons of water last year, an amount that Stephenson hopes will grow.

“I hate that sign, ‘Brown is the New Green’,” says Lelliott, referring the popular lawn sign campaign started in Santa Clara. Stephenson agrees that it sends the wrong message. She watches as Lelliott pumps water to take home to his tropical plants. “Droughts don’t have to be brown,” she says. “Droughts can be colorful.”

Originally published in the June issue of San Francisco

Have feedback? Email us at
Email Sarah Stodder at
Follow us on Twitter @sanfranmag
Follow Sarah Stodder on Twitter @SarahStodder