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This is a huge amount of water devoted to a use that isn't considered a necessity in all circles. To make matters worse, experts estimate that as much as half of the water used for landscape irrigation is wasted due to evaporation, runoff, over-watering, and poorly designed systems.
It isn't any wonder that communities are taking a serious look at this issue. Many are adding legislation that specifically targets landscape irrigation.
"South Florida is currently under a severe drought that has influenced our watering methods," says Timothy Felts, vice president of Crawford Landscaping, based in Naples. "The South Florida Water Management District has set Phase II mandatory water restrictions that stipulate when and how much water our clients can apply to their landscape. This is a challenging time to maintain adequate moisture levels in order to keep plants and turf lush and healthy."
While restrictions like these can make life difficult, things could get much worse. "Landscape and irrigation professionals could find themselves regulated out of business," says Deborah Hamlin, executive director of the Irrigation Association. "We see water restrictions all over the country, with some communities going as far as to discourage and restrict turfgrass and plant choices."
"As an industry, we ignore this issue at our own peril," agrees Dick Hunter, CEO of Hunter Industries. "It's becoming a bigger issue in more places all the time."
This is one reason why the Irrigation Association is taking a leadership role on the issue of water conservation, and why it puts a strong emphasis on government affairs. "We want the industry to have a place at the table when water is discussed," says Hamlin.
"Many of these issues come up at the state and local level. Our Contractor Ambassadors work with our state government affairs staff to influence legislation to benefit the industry. We're also working in the federal government, encouraging development of a water caucus in Congress to educate federal lawmakers about irrigation and water issues."
Individual contractors can take a leadership role too. Each contractor has a part to play in elevating the reputation of the industry. They can do this not only by becoming actively involved in government discussions and community education, but also by simply applying the most efficient irrigation methods possible in their everyday practice.
"Landscape irrigation is very visible to the public and an easy target," says Kevin Gordon, senior product development specialist for Hunter Industries. "We must stop making silly, embarrassing mistakes such as watering while it is raining. The industry is full of great, water-efficient and water-saving products. We need to change our old habits and embrace the future. Utilizing more efficient products adds very little cost and almost no difference to our installation techniques, while it helps shift our image as water wasters."
By changing old habits and embracing new technologies, landscape and irrigation professionals can identify themselves as water conservation experts to their customers and the broader community. They can become the heroes instead of the scapegoats.
Sip, don't gulp
Opportunities to conserve water exist at every level, from landscape design, to irrigation system design and installation, to the products you use, to overall landscape management. Even consumer education can have a major impact.
Landscape designers share responsibility by creating landscapes that use a sensible amount of water. This doesn't mean eliminating turf or using only drought-tolerant plants. Instead it means addressing the wants of the client and balancing these with a variety of strategies to reduce over-consumption of water.
Among the most important of these strategies is hydrozoning, or grouping plants with similar moisture requirements together. Irrigation designers can then set up zones to generously water moisture- loving plants while watering more conservatively in other areas.
"Most landscapes are being significantly over-watered, by about 50% more than they should be," says Jay Tripathi, owner of Gardenworks, Inc. in Healdsburg, California. "Appropriately designed landscapes that include hydrozones of plants with similar water needs can help."
In addition to more thoughtful planting and system design, the wide assortment of efficient new products available means there is no longer any reason for landscapes to be the tremendous water wasters they have been.
"It's important to know your products and understand how they can be used on each property," says Mark Brotton, owner of Living Water Irrigation and Landscaping in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "I always want to be on the cutting edge. You have to remember that the irrigation system is an evolving system. You don't just put it in and say, 'Okay, that's done'."
Instead Brotton continually evaluates the systems he serves against available new water-saving technologies. "I want to bring every client appropriate water management for their own specific site. We do a complete audit of the system to see if it's at peak level of performance and efficiency. Then we develop a plan. We don't have to make all the changes at once but at least we will have a plan to follow."
When deciding which new technologies to integrate, contractors are challenged with making the biggest impact for the smallest investment. Among new technologies, smart controllers are investments that have proven themselves.
Smart controllers gather or apply site-specific environmental information such as weather, soil moisture, evaporation, and plant transpiration rates, in order to 'decide' when to water. Different makes and models use different methods to gather their data. Some use onsite weather stations, soil moisture sensors, and other on-site devices. Others rely on data from outside sources. But all apply water based on need, not strictly on regularly scheduled timing.
"Our Smart Water Application Technologies (SWAT) program recognized that widespread adoption of smart controllers could create significant water savings," says Hamlin. "SWAT has done a great job raising the profile of that technology in the industry and with the public."
Smart controllers have been proven to reduce water consumption, and they've become a key focus for water district incentive programs. Rebates make them easy to market in many areas.
Drip irrigation is another technology getting a lot of attention these days. Whether they involve drip emitters, micro sprays, or drip tubing, these systems are designed to deliver water slowly, in precise amounts, directly to the root zone of plants. Because they use such a low volume of water, they are often exempt from the landscape irrigation restrictions that apply to traditional overhead sprinkler systems.
Overhead sprinklers are also getting design makeovers to increase efficiency. The Nelson Irrigation Company and Walla Walla Sprinkler offer the MP Rotator, a rotating stream sprinkler that can uniformly cover small and large areas with a low application rate. It applies water at approximately a third of the rate of spray heads, thereby reducing wasteful runoff. The rate automatically adjusts after radius and arc adjustments so the sprinkler maintains its low precipitation rate no matter what area it's watering.
"The MP Rotator is the most rebated sprinkler available," says Mike Baron, national MP Rotator manager for Walla Walla Sprinkler. "It's even been certified as a water-saving device by the Australian Irrigation Organization, on the driest continent in the world."
Rain Bird has also introduced a new line of rotary nozzles. Rain Bird Rotary Nozzles are offered in two radius ranges, each with six fixed-arc patterns for design flexibility.
Small changes, big impact
Even small changes in existing systems can have a major impact. "Huge water savings can be realized by selecting the 'smart' version of many commonly used irrigation products," says Kevin Gordon. "For instance, using a pressure-regulated spray head instead of a non-regulated model saves a minimum of 10 to 15%, and often saves substantially more. Using sprinklers with check valves in lieu of standard sprinklers saves hundreds of gallons per irrigation cycle by not allowing the water to drain out of the supply line between cycles. Efficient nozzles with a low Scheduling Coefficient (SC) not only apply the water more evenly but they allow for shorter run times."
Changes don't have to be expensive to save gallons. "Nothing makes our industry look more wasteful than when irrigation occurs while it is raining," says Gordon. "A typical rain sensor costs a contractor less than twenty dollars and can save thousands of gallons per rainy day in a residential application."
Installing a flow sensor is another economical intervention. A flow sensor can detect excess flow in the event of a leak or break and shut down the system. "All you need is one incident and that flow sensor will save you gallons," says Tripathi.
Educating your customers, your community and yourself
Consumer education is a critical component in the push to reduce waste in irrigation. Participating in community water conservation workshops is a great way to provide a service and demonstrate your company's commitment to the issue at the same time.
Discussing alternative landscaping options and products with individual clients is also important.
Showing clients how much water they currently use can be eye opening. "We read meters on all sites," says Tripathi. "You can't do water management unless you can quantify what you use. We install sub-meters on a lot of our new construction projects. They are not very expensive to put in when you consider that they can save water and money in the long run."
Many controllers also have monitoring features. "The ACC from Hunter gives me feedback to closely monitor the amount of water used in the landscape," says Brotton. He uses this information to educate clients on how changes might impact usage.
"On one commercial site, we're taking lawn out and replacing it with a blend of dry land grasses and wildflowers," says Brotton. "We're putting in a timer that will demonstrate the savings. We expect the client to save 30% of their water over five years. And we won't be looking at acres of Kentucky bluegrass in the middle of the desert."
There are countless ways to obtain your own water conservation education. Manufacturers and distributors, local extension agencies, and water providers all offer classes and seminars for contractors to take or even help teach. For example, Tripathi is currently working in partnership with the Sonoma County Water Agency and several other contractors in his region to develop the Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper Program, a series of classes designed to help professionals develop expertise in water-efficient landscape design, maintenance, and operation.
Getting involved with professional organizations is one of the best ways to get educated. "The Irrigation Association has classes that can benefit every level of background and experience," says Hamlin. "The Smart Technologies for Irrigation Management class created a couple of years ago provides a great overview of new technology and detailed practical information for the contractor about how to install and use it."
She also recommends attending the IA show. "At the show, contractors can meet other contractors and share information about common problems. And the show provides an opportunity to see different manufacturers' products as well as many new products in one location."
The continued success of the industry depends on forward-thinking, educated individuals. Proactive contractors who become part of the solution to water supply issues now will help ensure that their company and the industry as a whole can keep things green for years to come.