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Preparing for the Coming Water Crisis

Take a good, hard look at any satellite photo of the Earth and you’ll immediately notice that there are no pipes bringing a supply of fresh water to the planet, and there are no pipes taking away any used water. Our home planet is an atmosphere-enclosed sphere that has virtually all of the water it has ever had and all of the water it will ever get.

If it was possible to take an even closer look at the globe, especially across time, you’d see how the population has increased, but even more dramatic would be how the per-capita use of water has risen across time … more and more people are using more and more water, even though there is actually a finite supply of it!

Consider these startling facts:

• 97% of the earth’s water lies in the oceans and seas as salt-water

• 2% is locked up as glacial ice,

• 1% is available for human use

• A larger and larger portion of the 1% is being polluted beyond the point where it can be used by humans, or it’s considered too expensive to purify.

• A large portion of today’s water-use is wasted

• Uncontrollable weather phenomena will continue to result in droughts and floods that at least temporarily impact the availability and usability of water

• Demand for fresh water is dramatically increasing every year because of

- expanding populations

- greater total water use per capita

- increased industrialization, urbanization or economic growth

- expanded land development

• the total amount of water on the planet has not significantly changed for eons…the Earth has simply been recycling the water that has always been here. We may never run out of water, but there will never be any more than we already have!

Landscape Contractors and Water

"...homeowners were actually giving their xeric style of landscaping more water than similar sized traditional landscapes! Upwards of 40 percent more water was applied to a landscape that was supposed to conserve water."

So what does all of this mean to a humble Landscape Contractor trying to make a living, especially if his (or her) business is in a part of the country that gets a lot of rainfall or snow?

The cost of water is going to continue to rise, no matter where you are. Pumping, purifying and distributing it is going to continue to increase as well. So there will be increased costs and you can be assured that decreased water supplies will be tied with those cost increases due to factors such as population growth and industrial expansion, which create increased demand.

The other consideration for contractors is water system delivery breakdown, such as when a city's main pump goes out. The Landscape Contractor who is on the ball will have contingency plans for such a breakdown.

Consider this "formula for Landscape Contractor extinction:"

A fixed volume of water

Minus wasted or polluted quantities

Multiplied by increased uses

Divided by an increasing population

Equals massive shortages, issues of control and perhaps even major conflicts.

This could result in the elimination of a need for Landscape Contractors, and ultimately their extinction as a profession, particularly if the important environmental benefits of a properly watered landscape are not fully understood or appreciated.

When high rainfall areas such as Seattle, Washington or London, England implement landscape watering ordinances or outright bans with roving "water police," how much imagination does it take to foresee the time this surrealistic picture of water conservation could develop anywhere?

It’s becoming more and more certain that everyone, no matter where they live will one day face a significant water crisis … it’s not a matter of "if," it’s really a matter of "when." As Shakespeare wrote, "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."

Practically since the beginning of landscaping, everyone has focused on the beauty, the aesthetics of the landscape area and nothing else. Landscape architects designed beautiful sites, Landscape Contractors installed them according to spec … or did some design work themselves to meet a customer’s needs, and then maintenance was relegated to the lowest, newest person available, often the landscape owner’s less than capable son! No one seriously considered the environmental benefits or water conservation related to this landscape.

When landscape water conservation has become an issue for various governmental or regulatory groups, inconsistent or ineffective messages have been the standard more often than not.

For example, what water conservation message is being conveyed when people are told they must reduce their water use only to see a new housing development, shopping area or industrial user being approved? What does it say when, in the name of water conservation, lot sizes are reduced so more homes can be built on an acre of land, yet the total water use of this expanding population will be greater than any combined outdoor water use?

Also, how effective is it to promote xeriscaping and then not truly educate people about proper watering, so that they actually use more water than a traditional landscape? Lastly, when alternate-day watering is enforced, people tend to water every-other-day, whether the landscape plants need it or not! There is no real water conservation, only confusing, inconsistent, inconsequential and ineffective messages!

Perhaps one of the most environmentally detrimental approaches to landscape water conservation is to reduce or eliminate turf from the landscape. Poorly selected replacement plants may require or be given more water than turf, plus the grass’s cooling and filtration benefits are lost and more fossil fuel is burned to cool the heat-islands that are created.

What Can You Do About It?

Actual plant water requirements are a critical educational aspect of water conservation and there is more than sufficient science to document how little water a grass plant needs to survive. However, there is relatively little similar water-use information on most other landscape plants.

After nearly three years of concentrated study, the Water Policy Committee of Turfgrass Producers International (an independent, international association of turfgrass sod farmers) concluded that all green industry professionals need to become active in three important areas.

1. Educating themselves about all aspects of water conservation

2. Recognizing and promoting the environmental benefits of properly designed, installed and maintained landscapes

3. Working together as a unified landscape profession to educate the public and water-policy decision-makers.

In the educational area, the first and greatest need is to understand that plants don’t waste water, people do. Independent landscape water-use studies at Arizona State University and by the American Water Works Association Research Foundation found that homeowners were actually giving their xeric style of landscaping more water than similar sized traditional landscapes! Upwards of 40 percent more water was applied to a landscape that was supposed to conserve water. Not only did the over-watering defeat the water-conservation purpose of the design, it also resulted in the creation of more yard waste because the plants, shrubs, bushes and trees had to be pruned more to maintain their intended shape and size.

At best, so-called low-water plant lists or "native" plant lists that purport to classify plants are non-scientific, anecdotal and therefore highly questionable. Absent any scientific data, professional Landscape Contractors are probably better equipped to classify plant water requirements based on their real-world experiences in a particular climatic zone. Sharing this information with consumers and water-policy officials is critical to an improved understanding of plant selection and long-term maintenance.

As mentioned earlier, a landscape’s aesthetics has long been practically its sole measure of value; however, with more and more scientific study, we are learning that the environmental, psychological and sociological benefits are even more significant. It would be the epitome of shortsightedness to destroy or diminish the valuable contributions of landscapes in the name of water conservation, when so many other avenues of more significant conservation can be readily accomplished.

Providing customer services and education are other significant ways professional Landscape Contractors can do good and do well.

By offering to "audit" landscape water use or by including routine maintenance of in-ground systems to both residential and commercial property owners, landscape professionals can position themselves as leading conservationists and create additional profit centers for their business at the same time. Other professional landscape maintenance activities that are key to water conservation would include frequent aerification and the proper application of correct fertilizers, as well as mowing with sharp blades on a regular basis, proper pruning or dead-heading and watering according to the plants’ needs, not a pre-set timer schedule.

Creating customer good-will, and saving them money on their landscape watering costs will also serve the Landscape Contractor very well. Reminding customers to re-set their automatic timers to match seasonal water needs, showing them how or doing it on a regular basis (even as a no-cost, good-will gesture) will ultimately be rewarding to the professional. The plants will be stronger, the water bills lower and the owner happier!

Green Industry Coalitions

If you're not experiencing a water crisis now, there is probably one in your future. As water prices continue to rise, and most of the country experiences drought conditions, the role of xeriscaping and water conservation among Landscape Contractors becomes more and more important.

For those Landscape Contractors who want to remain exclusively involved with their own business plan, there is a real opportunity to create coalitions with other green industry professionals. Landscape irrigation specialists, nursery and garden centers and turfgrass sod producers, as well as landscape architects and designers can become important water conservation partners. Referring customers to a known professional, capable of responding to the special needs their situation presents will be highly valued by the customer and the coalition partner. For example, an irrigation specialist may be called in to upgrade an in-ground system by adding moisture sensors or rain shut-off devices, in addition to performing the delicate task of re-tuning the entire system.

Water conservation education opportunities for the public are also more feasible when professionals partner together. Landscape designers, plant resource people, irrigation specialists and others can be drawn together to develop a powerful program that teaches the how-tos of landscape water conservation, and it increases the credibility and professionalism of the hosts and presenters. Program participants can also become a source of future business for each presenter.

Coalition partnerships can also be valuable when (not if), a water crisis arises in the area. Knowing and trusting each other in advance of a crisis will make it easier to work together to develop solutions that solve what may be the conflicting needs of all parties. Understanding and supporting the needs of other green industry professionals can only help advance and assist every one’s interests and needs.

In summary, every landscape professional has both a right and an obligation to actively participate in the very necessary act of water conservation. This starts with taking individual responsibility (both at work and at home) to conserve water, use it wisely and to demonstrate to others that they can have a positive impact on our environment and properly maintained landscape.

After thoroughly educating ourselves, we all have many opportunities to share that knowledge in real and effective ways. This may be through customer education programs or participation in the governmental processes that determine future water resource development and both emergency and non-emergency water-use restrictions.

Lastly, in order to establish and maintain their own levels of credibility, professionals must insist on science and the professionalism of all others. While it may seem risky, at the very least questions about the validity and bias of the results or recommendations must be challenged, even in public settings. Similarly, less than professional quality work must also be challenged. A bad landscape design, or irrigation system, poorly installed or needing maintenance must not be allowed to go unnoticed.

Being creative in our thinking and devising new ways to address old and on-going problems will become more and more important in the days and years ahead. The alternative is to accept extinction and plan accordingly! 701300

Douglas H. Fender, executive director of Turfgrass Producers International and the International Turf Producers Foundation, was a contributing-author and editor-in-chief of the ITPF book, "Water Right – Conserving Our Water, Preserving Our Environment," which was the basis for this article. A complete copy of this new book can be viewed and/or downloaded from the web at

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October 20, 2019, 5:55 pm PDT

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