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The Complex Landscape of Water Supply and Demand

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers released the final Waters of the United States rule on May 27. It grants the EPA the authority to protect small water bodies that have the potential of carrying pollution to the navigable waterways that the agency was charged with protecting through 1972's Clean Water Act. Opponents fear that the new rule will interfere with the work of, and raise the cost of doing business for, many industries including landscaping. Photo: Pinnacle Design Co.

As an indispensible resource, water has often been central to conflicts. And while historically it was used more to help fight battles - floods were created, and supplies were poisoned or cut off to vanquish enemies - water is now more likely to be the cause of battles.

These new battle lines are not always clearly drawn, nor are the solutions, since the issues that encircle the debates are many and many-sided. And caught in the middle is the green industry, sometimes vilified as an antagonist and sometimes commended as an ally.

Landscaping's Impact
The total water used for landscape irrigation is hard to pin down. According to the EPA's calculations, American households allow 30 to 60 percent of their monthly use for outdoor purposes.

Based on an analysis of available data by Dennis Pittenger and Donald Hodel at the University of California, Riverside, residential irrigation in their arid state amounts to 7 percent of the total statewide developed water use.

As for a specific amount of water used by a lawn, a California landscape company that specializes in artificial turf installation pegs it at 40 to 60 gallons of water per square foot of grass per year.

Natural vs. Artificial
Installing artificial turf is a mounting tactic in the water conservation battle. And along with saving water, it saves property owners money. According to a report distributed at a recent drought awareness event, at $.004 per gallon, the average price of water in major metropolitan areas, replacing 5,000 square feet of lawn can save $800 to $1,200 per year.

But within the green industry's ranks, there is dissent on this issue.

Carlos Medrano, a national certified landscape irrigation auditor from Denver, cites oxygen production as a chief reason to stand up for natural turf.

The National Association of Landscape Professionals points out that it cools the surrounding air, decomposes pollutants, suppresses dust, acts as a fire barrier, serves as a filter to potable water supplies, reduces stormwater runoff and soil erosion.

Medrano adds, "For a family with children and pets, it's really not a good alternative (in Colorado) because of the heat it generates."

Interstate Water Wars
California is referenced much in this article but based on the legal battles other states have waged over water rights, water supply concerns are a national issue.

In one of the most recent cases to be brought to the Supreme Court, Florida filed suit against Georgia seeking to limit that state's withdrawal from the Apalachicola-Chattahoochee-Flint river basins, which, Florida claims, Georgia uses to quench Atlanta at the expense of the oyster industry in Florida's Apalachicola Bay.

Georgia has a dispute with a northern neighbor also. State legislators went so far as to pass a resolution authorizing their attorney general to sue Tennessee in an attempt to gain a 1.5-square-mile parcel of disputed borderland that would give Georgia access to a reservoir on the Tennessee River.

Multistate water compacts, of which there are over two dozen nationwide, have caused much legal wrangling. For instance, Oklahoma accused Texas of breaking the terms of a four-state deal they share with Louisiana and Arkansas for water from the Red River by diverting some from inside Oklahoma's border. The justices unanimously ruled that Texas could only draw water from the river within its own borders.

The original compact, the 1922 Colorado River Compact between Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California, first triggered a lawsuit in 1952 and the last case in the series wasn't settled until 2000.

Kansas claimed Nebraska was illegally emptying the Republican River through groundwater pumping and the Supreme Court agreed. South Carolina brought a suit against North Carolina, requesting that the court change the allotments of the Catawba River. New Jersey sued the state of New York over proposed diversions of the Delaware River. Virginia sued Maryland over control of the Potomac River, and the list goes on.

Complex water harvesting systems with roof catchment and storage like this one with a 1,000-gallon cistern in Menard, Texas, can deliver 1.3 gallons per square foot of roof for every two inches of rain. This system supplies a drip irrigation setup in an educational garden.

The Hotel Fullerton in Fullerton, Calif., replaced its greenbelts with artificial turf. According to the installer, Five Star Turf Commercial, the business will save an estimated 1,281,900 gallons of water and $50,000 per year, plus $25,000 per year on maintenance costs.

St. Paul, Minn., has replaced many of its original pipes with copper pipes in a project that will eventually replace them all. Aging water delivery infrastructure is the top concern of water professionals throughout North America according to the 2015 State of the Water Industry Report put out by the American Water Works Association. Ratepayers are expected to burden some of the costs of updating the infrastructure. Photo: Irritrol

Water as a Commodity
As shown in the Florida/Georgia case before the Supreme Court, economic concerns can directly affect a dispute over water.

And as seen at the recent conference and expo put on by the American Water Works Association, water is big business. In the professional sessions, the concern for the economic health of the water industry was evident.

In one session, Jenny Gain, a staff engineer at California Urban Water Agencies, an association of 10 municipal distributors, spoke about the economic impact the drought has on water suppliers.

"With the lower water demands there are obviously declining revenues," she said. "And when we couple with that the increasing needs for investment, it ultimately leads to the need for new strategies on revenue stability. The investments that are needed for conservation programs . . . and for repair and replacement of aging infrastructure, this won't go away."

Wes Strickland, an attorney for the water industry, argues that when sustainability in the water industry is being discussed, economic sustainability is often left out.

"In order for us to achieve physical sustainability, we must also at the same time reach economic sustainability," he states.

Sharing the Wealth
Pipelines and manmade canals that distribute water from those with plenty to those without have been around for a long time, often put in place by the vanquishers of a specific landscape. Since that won't hold water in this country, cooperation is the key. But so is, once again, economic viability, as well as technical feasibility.

As part of a 2012 study of water supply and demand in the Colorado River Basin, there was consideration for a pipeline from the Missouri River in Kansas to the mountains of Colorado. The study determined that the proposal was technically possible but the cost of construction and the energy to transport the water, made it untenable. Water industry reporter Brett Walton concluded, "Conservation was the big winner, deemed to be significantly cheaper and able to deliver more water."

And what of much larger projects in this country? They are achievable - in Libya, a network of 2,174 miles of pipeline carries water from a large aquifer in the Sahara Desert to that country's populous coastal cities - but at what cost?

A 2004 report from students at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire informs that in the 1980s, there were proposals to pipe water from the Great Lakes Basin, which contains 95 percent of U.S. surface freshwater, to the Southwest.

Ultimately these plans were dismissed due to the costs of construction, maintenance to the pipeline and monitoring of the water quality; difficult logistics; disruption of the land, the ecosystems the pipelines would cross and the ecosystems of the sources of water; legal issues arising from ownership of the water and strong objections from Great Lake states.

In an attempt to minimize the drawdown of the the Ogallala Aquifer, Kansas state officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently wanted to revisit the economic viability of a 1982 federal water supply study that proposed transporting billions of gallons of water annually from the Missouri River to farms across Kansas. Photo: Steve Hillebrand/USFWS

The Best Solution?
In the example of the Eisenhower Pipeline proposal, water conservation was regarded to trump water transport as the most viable means to increase that particular water supply at that time. But that will likely not always be the case.

As another large-scale solution besides pipelines, desalination seems to be gaining more supporters all the time but the high costs to build plants, the large amounts of energy to operate them, and the environmental impacts from having to dispose of the brine and chemicals used in the process still provides its critics with much ammo.

As for rainwater capture, Neal Shapiro, the secretary of the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association, says that it is currently an underused resource that can deliver water with an acceptable quality at a minimal energy cost compared to pumped municipal water.

Some argue that instead of capturing the rainfall in cisterns and barrels and such, it is more efficient to capture it in the water table through the use of permeable and pervious pavement.

In her talk to professionals in the water industry, Gain promoted water efficient irrigation and landscaping as a principal method of sustaining water supplies.

"This is really what we think represents the next significant increment of conservation savings," she stated.

Medrano estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of his company's customers are requesting water efficient irrigation but he backs it fully, saying, "If you take care of water and use it properly, you can have great lush landscape while minimizing the amount that you are using and wasting."

Even with conservation efforts, the demand for water will likely increase, as will its cost due to the expense of creating new supplies and for repairing and replacing the aging infrastructure.

Increased regulations in the water industry, such as the final Waters of the United States rule, will doubtless increase costs too.

And, as evidenced, water supply concerns are not isolated to specific areas. Even where there are abundant quantities now; shifting climate patterns, agriculture demands, urban expansion and other, possibly unforeseeable, factors can drain that abundance.

With water so critical to landscaping, what does the future hold for the green industry? Since it is green, it will undoubtedly continue to be a leader in water conservation, helping to change expectations and practices, and spearheading advancements in technology.

And as an industry, it must continue to stay informed of all the issues relating to water supply and demand, take an active stance and have an active voice, and look for new opportunities that will help sustain its viability and prosperity.

Excerpted from: Perspective on the California Drought and Landscape Water Use by Dennis R. Pittenger, Area Environmental Horticulturist, and Donald R. Hodel, Environmental Horticulture Advisor at the University of California Cooperative Extension Botany and Plant Sciences Department - U.C. Riverside

Landscape water use in California accounts for only 9% of the total statewide developed water use. Yes, if California's home and public landscapes, parks, sports fields, and golf courses were not irrigated, the state would save about 9% of its water consumption. Of this statewide 9%, residential use accounts for about 7% while parks, golf courses, sports fields, and other large landscapes account for 2%. Lawns, which have been especially singled out as water wasting culprits, are estimated to use about 40% to 60% of landscape irrigation in California, or just 3.5% to 5% of total statewide water use. Overall, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for about 50% of annual residential water consumption statewide. That amount varies widely from about 30% in many coastal communities to 60% or more in various inland suburban communities. The amount of water used by landscapes seems small considering the essential functions and innumerable benefits landscapes provide to enhance the quality and livability of California's urban areas . . . (The entire analysis is available at

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May 19, 2019, 8:21 am PDT

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