PLEASANTON, Calif. -- Leon Jung figured he had to do something out of the ordinary to save his brown front lawn in a second year of water rationing.
So he turned to his local sewage plant.
He started trucking in reclaimed water a month ago from the plant that is the first in California to dispense free recycled effluent, or treated sewage, to do-it-yourselfers.
Yes, free water. You just have to be willing to haul it home in tanks, drums, barrels or jugs -- a rescue operation that seems a primitive throwback to the basics in a state with the most highly engineered water delivery systems in America.
Business, however, is booming at the household recycled water station in Pleasanton where water down the drain is converted to drought relief for parched lawns and shrubs.
Sewer plants in Martinez and Livermore also have begun giving away reclaimed water to drive-in customers, and plants in several other California cities are considering it.
"This water is making a huge difference with my landscaping," said Jung, a Dublin resident. "The lawn got pretty brown and dried out last year during the cutbacks. I worry it would die if I didn't give it this extra help."
A retired software engineer, Jung took delight in designing his mobile irrigation system with two 55-gallon used food drums strapped to the back of his pickup. He fitted a plastic pipe that acts like a straw to suck up the water from the drums and an electric motor to send it shushing through a hand-held garden hose over his front lawn, ferns, camellia bush and other shrubs.
"I had fun coming up with this," he said as he steered a stream of treated sewage water on his lawn.
Jung is among the more than 610 residential customers who have registered to fill-em-up at the recycled water station operated by the Dublin San Ramon Services District at its sewer plant in Pleasanton near the crossroads of Interstates 680 and 580.
The popularity of the service has exploded in recent weeks. More than 50 people signed up in the past few days as the drought continues and temperatures climb.
Adding to the stakes, Gov. Jerry Brown last week called for mandatory water cutbacks statewide averaging 25 percent -- the amount Dublin, Livermore and Pleasanton already reduced last year.
"Our service is certainly riding a wave of popularity," said Dan Gallagher, the Dublin San Ramon operations manager. "I'm awed sometimes when I see so many people using our filling station. It takes a lot of work to bring water home, and pump it on your grounds, and then keep doing it again and again."
The Dublin San Ramon district -- a combined water and sewer agency -- opened the recycled water station in July with three spigots and minimal expectations. Now the station has eight spigots with another eight to be added soon to keep up with spiraling demand. Anyone can take the water -- not just district residents -- and some people drive in from 30 miles away.
Officials said water shortages in the drought have helped many consumers get pass the yuck factor of using treated effluent.
The Dublin San Ramon, Livermore and Central Contra Costa Sanitary District sewer plants give the recycled water they distribute extra treatment with sand filters and disinfectant.
"Our tertiary treated recycled water is perfectly safe," said Sue Stephenson, a Dublin San Ramon spokeswoman.
There are limits, though.
Before they haul away their first load, consumers must sign a form pledging not to use the recycled water for drinking or swimming pools and not to put it in household water pipes.
"Some of our customers have become very creative in coming up with systems to get the water into hoses and drip systems," said Melody LaBella, acting water recycling manager at the Central San plant in Martinez.
Many California sewer plants send recycled water through purple pipes to ball fields, golf courses or street medians, or dispense it to commercial trucks watering down dust.
But the Dublin San Ramon Services District's sewer plant in Pleasanton last year become the first to offer the free water to ordinary homeowners, according to the California Association of Sanitation Agencies.
"CASA felt that this program might be a model for other agencies to emulate in future," said Bobbi Larson, executive director of the statewide association.
While hauling recycled water to homes is a drop in the bucket given the overall water reduction needs in California, it helps individual consumers meet rationing limits and reinforces a conservation ethic, advocates say.
The Dublin San Ramon plant dispensed 2.3 million gallons of recycled water to homeowners in 2014, and has given away more than 580,000 gallons in the first three months this year.
"If the drought ends, I suspect most of our customers will stop using our service," Gallagher said. "But I don't think we will close it because some people will still want to use it."
Would you be willing to head to a sewage plant and fill a bunch of buckets with reclaimed water to keep your lawn from...