By Timothy Malooly
All the water that will ever be, is right now.
— National Geographic, October 1993
There’s no question about it: what we do individually and as an industry in the use of our precious water resources really matters.
Our use of fresh water is growing, but the water resource is not. U.S. population growth annually is .894 percent, or approximately 3 million people a year, and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 36 states anticipate water shortages by 2013. Our infrastructure is increasingly underperforming in response to migration of our population to fresh-water-starved regions like Arizona, Nevada and Florida; increased peak summertime use of water; and an aging or inadequate infrastructure in many established areas of the United States. Public agencies and local governments have begun to form policies that often only address symptoms of their concerns and exclude input from the very industry that can help create workable, long-term solutions to outdoor water use problems. U.S. federal policy is showing tendency toward being developed as a “one size fits all” prescriptive regime with limited flexibility.
Whether or not you believe in global warming or climate change as a cause of drought, in some areas drought has reached levels that are persistent and alarming. In 2007, Lake Mead, an 8-year reservoir serving southern Nevada and other areas had shrunk to a 4-year reserve. Also in 2007, drought conditions in Georgia and the lack of any drought preparedness resulted in an overnight eradication of more than 35,000 jobs.
Current projections seem to indicate more of the same — on a global scale.
This situation presents very serious challenges and, depending on our choices as an industry, some real opportunities.
Landscape water issues
The EPA estimates that as much as half of the water applied to the landscape is lost to evaporation or runoff. Solutions to water waste and runoff are readily available and can be effectively promoted in partnership with industry but considerations for market dynamics tend to be ignored in policy development or mistakenly dismissed as self-serving and therefore, non-valid. Given the context in which these issues are being framed, it’s clearly going to be tough in the near term to influence policy decisions in a way that makes sense for our industry and our clients.
Lately, the forces against any landscape irrigation seem to be aligning in the United States and are gaining real political influence. Public agencies are getting involved because they feel they must. This graph comes from Doug Bennett of the Southern Nevada Water Authority, which serves Las Vegas. It shows summertime outdoor water use. Although actual acre-feet may vary, a chart like this could represent any number of communities.
Public officials increasingly view landscape water as THE water usage that stresses a community’s water infrastructure. And it’s not just water. Moving landscape water requires an immense amount of energy. In the California central valley, with its huge agricultural industry, up to 40 percent of the energy devoted to the area is used to move water.
Water waste due to inefficient landscape watering is significant. This chart represents weather-based scheduling versus conventional “set-it-and-forget-it” irrigation scheduling. You can readily see the gap between what is needed and what’s being delivered. This chart is not unique to Las Vegas or even the southwest United States, but rather a common illustration of the wholesale need to adjust irrigation scheduling practices.
To successfully adjust scheduling practices, we’ve got to properly design and install systems and work with government to create and implement realistic, workable solutions and incentives against water waste while preserving the availability of and proper use of irrigation systems. For example, adding a “Smart” controller or central control system alone will not necessarily do the trick in effectively reducing water waste.
Water waste due to inefficient landscape watering and lack of understanding of available workable solutions has led to a proliferation of emotions-based water restrictions, landscape ordinances that limit turfgrass and/or establish plant lists, and distorted policy guidance that does not provide long-term solutions.
Feelings-based approaches in public policy often result in “witch hunts,” and demonizing symptoms instead of addressing root causes and developing constructive, workable solutions to problems. As a result, stakeholders tend to be lumped together without distinguishing those who use water efficiently and effectively — and those “good guys” ultimately are punished.
It is often easy to disguise feelings-based overreaction — which is generally “easier” to implement than science-based approaches. The feelings-based arguments to scare people into quick changes without regard for negative consequences. Once in place, it is nearly impossible to undo the harm caused by such approaches.
As long as the feelings-based mindset of addressing inefficient outdoor water use goes unchallenged, communities will experience many negative effects. These can include large revenue losses to both water suppliers and the landscape industry; communities that grow hotter and “harder;” soil erosion and sedimentation increase; increased storm water runoff and loading, increased noise levels; loss of recreation and wildlife habitat; and reduced recharge of ground and surface water. Given this situation, we’ve got to get into the policy-making mix and promote workable solutions.
The Green Industry, with all of its established best practices and science-based evidence is currently on the defensive. We could accept the diminishment of our business and focus on what’s easy. We could hire ferocious lawyers and mercenary lobbyists and resort to yelling and screaming. Or we can step up our engineering, science and practices to prove to clients and public officials that the path of efficiency makes everybody a winner.
Start with the basics, including proper design and installation, and the use of competent service providers. Employ proven technology and furnish continuous management as part of a regime of responsible maintenance that is both hands-on and automated.
At the design stage, we must base work on best practices, and insist that each project be designed to the most efficient irrigation delivery mechanism we can practically create.
To reduce confusion for the installer and the client, highlight key elements and show calculations intended to demonstrate minimum expected results such as efficiency, water use per the plant pallet, and proposed scheduling guidelines.
Irrigation professionals have a wide range of methods at their fingertips to make a difference and prove that we’re part of the solution, rather than being the problem. We begin by educating ourselves. Then we educate others about the landscape’s benefits and the observation that water waste is a behavioral issue — it’s a people issue that people can fix. We design for efficiency, document it seriously, and then apply technology.
Finally, our industry must be in the room with a seat at the table when policy decisions are made. It’s up to us to be ambassadors of balance, technology and doing the right thing.
Appearance is important, but that’s not the only benefit of healthy landscapes; and it’s up to us to talk the real talk, and walk the real walk. Efficient, healthy landscapes contribute important benefits to our environment. And we must not be shy to remind everyone — including clients and public officials — about these benefits.
Properly irrigated green spaces help break down harmful contaminants, trap dust, provide noise abatement, produce oxygen, sequester carbon, create passive cooling, prevent erosion and sedimentation, create areas for habitat and recreation, provide receptive open spaces for filtered groundwater recharge, and improve water quality.
We need to reaffirm our commitment to best practices in all aspects of our industry; get involved in local and national policy-making; straighten up and fly right in terms of our personal or company practices; and compel our competitors, vendors and clients to do, and look for, the same.
Together, as an industry, we can step up through various partnership and certification programs. The Irrigation Association (IA) offers some of the best state-of-the-art training programs available on a wide range of irrigation topics and particularly regarding best practices.
In 2007, IA began a new strategic plan centered on promotion of efficient irrigation. Simultaneously, IA invested heavily in each of its four initiatives including resource availability, education, marketing, and government affairs.
The IA government affairs program has seen some real success especially at a time when government seems to be increasingly involved in the Green Industry and, of course, water topics.
Resources for use by IA members have been, and continue to be, developed promoting the positive results of efficient irrigation practices.
IA certification programs are often referenced or used by states in their licensure programs. As a result, IA membership has been increasing and member satisfaction with IA activities has been on the rise.
The IA Ambassador program is a means for experienced IA members to become involved beyond personal commitment to “doing the right thing.” Since the program began, IA has made substantial progress in learning about and influencing public policy at the local level. Involved IA Ambassador members have helped build substantial bridges and taken seats at many tables related to public policy decision-making at the local level. Ambassadors have also helped remind industry practitioners of the importance to rise above bad practices and proudly promote best-practice-based behaviors as the best solution for water efficiency and for the vitality of their businesses. But we’ve got a long way to go.
The EPA WaterSense program identified several of IA’s certifications as prerequisite to becoming an EPA WaterSense Partner. This designation is gaining increasing market position.
To become a WaterSense partner, one must first become certified through a WaterSense-labeled program such as IA’s CLIA, CIC or CID, then commit to doing the right thing — in writing along with a completed partnership agreement.
There are many reasons to make the effort to be involved in the evolution of our industry.
The take-away is that our industry will ultimately be playing at a higher level of engineering. It’s inevitable, and arguably the right direction for our young industry.
For example, the WaterSense team recently released the specification for a WaterSense-labeled new home. In order to design the irrigation, install the irrigation or audit the system, a WaterSense Partner must be used — it is not negotiable. The program also includes a mechanism to certify the home as worthy of the label. The new program has its flaws — I know this and so do other concerned Green Industry associations. IA and other Green Industry groups are working hard to minimize mistakes in the program. But make no mistake, the WaterSense New Homes program has been released — warts and all. The best thing to do is for you, your employees and partners to become certified; walk the walk in your practice; take a seat at the table; set an example; and work to refine our industry.
The bottom line
Properly designed, installed and managed landscape irrigation systems are wonderful tools. By committing or re-committing to water-efficient practices and walking the walk, you will do more to help your industry and yourself to a bright and more water-efficient future in what is a highly technical and very important industry.
As we work with policy makers, we must continually remind them that properly designed, installed and maintained irrigation — although the exception today in most communities — is achievable by a simple change of behavior. What is not so simple is enrolling policy makers in helping us constructively change behavior when we face widespread lack of knowledge, poor business practices and marketplace fear throughout our industry.
To those who install and maintain landscape irrigation systems, please consider thinking of your profession as sustaining the landscape by meeting its water needs efficiently; — not as putting together sprinkler systems.
Timothy Malooly is president of Water in Motion, Inc. (WiM), Irrigation By Design, Inc. (IBD) and Dulcet Fountains & Aeration. WiM is an irrigation design, consulting and applied Technologies Company; IBD is an irrigation installation and service company; and Dulcet is a fountain and lake water quality management company. Malooly is a Certified Irrigation Contractor, Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor, Certified Irrigation Designer and EPA WaterSense Partner. At the national level, Malooly participates in the Irrigation Association (IA), is chair of the IA Ambassador Outreach program, and serves on the IA board of directors. At the state level, he participates in the Minnesota Nursery & Landscape Association (MNLA), is chair of its Government Affairs Committee, and serves on its board of directors. He also serves on the board of directors of the Gopher State OneCall system and in 2007 was appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to the Minnesota State Board of Electricity. In 2008, Malooly became the first-ever recipient of the US EPA’s WaterSense Partner of the Year.