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WASHINGTON -- California could save more water than what its cities use in a year by ramping up its conservation and recycling programs and storing rain water instead of letting it run off into the Pacific Ocean, according to a report released Tuesday.

Californians could save 10 million-14 million acre feet of water a year if they were to take common-sense and low-cost steps like switching to low-flush toilets, upgrading aging irrigation systems and using "climate appropriate" vegetation for landscaping, according to the report.

That's more than the combined 9 million acre feet California's cities use in a year, according to the study by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Pacific Institute.

A commonly used measurement unit, an acre foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons.

The study didn't estimate the overall cost of implementing the recommendations. The authors told reporters in a conference call the price tag would vary from one region to the next, adding that their recommendations likely would^ @cost less than building big dams or reservoirs and still lead to greater water savings.

"As a state, we'd be in much better shape today and able to weather the drought with far less hardship if we'd more heavily invested in these tools in the past," said Kate Poole, an NRDC attorney.

Pacific Institute President Peter Gleick said the steps outlined in the report would help California well after the drought ends.

"We've hit the wall in California," he said. "We know we're in a severe drought now but even in a normal year or wet year we're overextended. We take too much water out of the system."

Agriculture uses about 80 percent of the water in the state. Farmers alone could save 5.6 million-6.6 million acre feet, according to the report.

A drought-relief bill introduced in February by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Assembly Speaker John Perez and backed by Gov. Edmund Brown puts a premium on common-sense conservation measures. Brown also has called for more community-level efforts to boost water supplies. Many of the steps identified by the report are already being taken.

Yet, a lot more remains to be done, said Bob Wilkinson, a water policy expert at the University of California-Santa Barbara.

For instance, about 1 million acres of California farmland gets water through "flood irrigation," an age-old method in which water reaches the crops through furrows dug into the earth. This method is wasteful because a lot of the water evaporates. Wilkinson said farmers could save a lot of water by switching to "drip irrigation," a method in which crops get water through holes in plastic pipes to minimize evaporation.

California communities know that they have to solve their own water problems. They don't anticipate that "large amounts of money are going to be spent on large-scale infrastructure as it was perhaps 50 years ago," Wilkinson said. "Most of the investment is actually occurring at the local level by the local entities with some support from state and federal funding sources."

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