With the possible exception of oxygen, it’s tough to imagine any one substance being more essential to life than water. And increasingly, water is becoming an ever more precious resource. Between record droughts, the demands of a growing population and an increasing awareness of the importance of water quality, it’s no wonder that media pundits from Reuters to Rolling Stone have declared water the “new oil.”
Water issues affect all of us. However, the landscape industry occupies a unique position where water is concerned. Let’s take a closer look at the state of water in the U.S. today, how it’s affecting the industry and how landscape professionals can turn the situation to the best advantage for everyone.
Today’s top water concerns
By its very nature, water is a regional issue. Patterns of rainfall vary considerably from one part of the country to the next. Surface water is separated into watersheds by the topography of the land. Even groundwater belongs to one aquifer or another. The most pressing water issues will vary from region to region, and sometimes from one municipality to the next. However, looking at the biggest water concerns nationwide will reveal the following three at the top of the list:
The past 10 years have seen significant drought in many areas of the U.S., with the years 2002 to 2003 and 2012 to 2013 being particularly dry. Those of us in the West and Southwest are now living through a millennial drought, with conditions unlike any in recent memory.
What is not clear is just how long-term this water shortage is likely to be. While it is logical to assume that drought conditions will always eventually go away, some climate change models predict a more or less permanent shift toward drier conditions in parts of the U.S. as a result of global warming. It’s impossible to know for sure, but the potential is there for reduced water conditions to become a more or less permanent reality for many U.S. residents.
Regardless, every region is bound to experience drought sooner or later, whether short-term or for the duration. Shifting to less water-intensive landscaping practices will not only help relieve the situation now, but also set the stage for greater resilience against low-water conditions in the future.
Maintaining a pure supply of drinking water ranks as America’s top environmental concern, according to a 2016 Gallup poll. Water quality is a top concern throughout the water-rich Eastern, Great Lakes and Midwest regions of the U.S., with much attention being placed on the use of potable water for irrigation, and on controlling runoff in order to limit the amount of pollutants released into surface water. In drought-stricken areas, the effects of drought extend to water quality: increased salinity and pH of surface water, lowered oxygen levels and temperature increases leading to algae blooms.
Rising water costs.
On average, municipal water rates in the U.S. have risen over 40 percent since 2010. Contributing factors include drought-related shortages; tightened water quality regulations; the rising cost of chemicals and other items necessary for water treatment; and costs associated with maintaining an aging water distribution infrastructure.
Challenge … or opportunity?
While water concerns vary by region, the primary overarching water issue of the day is undoubtedly water availability. Globally and in many regions, there is a limited amount of water with a lot of interests seeking to have that water. Naturally, conflicting water interests have given rise to an increasing amount of water use legislation, especially in drought-prone areas.
Historically, landscaping has been largely unregulated. However, that is changing rapidly as more and more water regulations come into play. Depending on location, property owners are being asked to restrict water use, replace their turf with less water-intensive landscaping, eliminate runoff and sometimes even stop watering altogether.
No one likes forced lifestyle changes. However, in general the public is adapting well to water use restrictions, says John Farmer, government and public affairs director of the Irrigation Association. “Water conservation is being driven by the market as well as by legislation. People want to be water conscious. It’s the right thing to do, and it saves money on the water bill.” A recent Turf reader’s survey backs up his opinion: 77 percent of participants report that water conservation is an issue that at least some, if not most, of their clients are concerned about. Of the remainder, 67 percent believe that it will become an issue in their area as drought conditions worsen across the country.
Farmer stresses that even though the changes going on in landscape and irrigation regulation may feel uncomfortable, they represent an opportunity for landscape professionals to step up and be seen as a solution to the problem rather than a part of it.
Robert Olsen, owner of Goldenstate Landscapes in Camarillo, California, agrees. He says the drought regulations in his area are encouraging people to move past their comfort zones and take advantage of his expertise. “As a contractor it brings in more work. I’ve been trying to talk people into xeriscape my whole life and now finally they’re listening.”
Landscape companies are a key link between regulatory bodies, water utilities and the end consumer. Overall, the trend is toward collaboration between all parties, including programs and incentives that benefit consumers, landscape professionals and communities alike.
The Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) is one of many water utilities working hard to conserve water through such programs. For example, their Water Smart Landscapes program offers renovation grants to help both commercial and residential property owners in their area finance replacement of turf with desert landscaping. The rebate award covers $2 per square foot for the first 5,000 square feet converted, and $1 per square foot for additional area, up to $300,000 per customer. The program increases business for landscape contractors as well as incentivizing long-term savings for the consumer.
The utility also offers a no-cost certification program for local landscape contractors. The Water Smart Contractor program trains contractors in water efficiency best practices through free, sponsored workshops. Landscape companies that certify at least half their employees and remain in good standing qualify for Water Smart Contractor status and enjoy promotional privileges. “We wanted a partnership with the green industry and contractors,” explains SNWA’s Conservation Programs Coordinator Summer Ortiz. “We average around 90 contractors in active status, and we help promote them. They’re listed on our website, they can use our logo on their marketing materials — it’s basically free advertising. They like our programs because it’s providing them a steady flow of work.”
The SNWA’s programs, like many in the country’s western regions, have proven both popular and extremely successful. “We used over 30 billion fewer gallons of water in 2014 compared to 2002, even though our population is growing and we were serving 500,000 more people,” Ortiz reports.
The education connection
The success of programs like the SNWA’s depends largely on education — and according to our survey, there is plenty of room for improvement in that department. Eighty-nine percent of contractors nationally reported that the majority of their customers were only somewhat or not at all aware of the importance of proper turf and landscape irrigation.
This lack of understanding appears to affect marketing and sales directly: 32 percent said the biggest obstacle they face in improving irrigation systems is clients’ lack of knowledge about irrigation. However, almost half of contractors make no proactive effort to educate their clients about the subject.
The need for education is not limited to the end consumer. When rating themselves, 38 percent of contractors said they were only somewhat knowledgeable about proper irrigation techniques, and 2 percent admitted that they had no knowledge of the subject.
“A lot of contractors out there are doing a great job, but there are some out there that are not utilizing the best technology. We have a lot of opportunities for keeping contractors at the cutting edge.” says Farmer, who believes it’s the joint responsibility of contractors and organizations like his to improve understanding of irrigation issues all around.
“Teamwork is essential. For example, July is Smart Irrigation Month. We’re doing a lot to bring the industry together to promote water efficiency. One of the most important things we do is educate contractors to educate consumers. The best place is face-to-face interaction. We also partner with the water providers and have them educate customers.
“It’s up to every one of us to educate ourselves, educate the public, and keep up to date on the technology.”