Lanscape Water Use – No Longer A Secret…

Recently American President Obama’s transition team recommended the use of technologically advanced irrigation controllers in an effort to reduce irrigation water consumption in residential and commercial landscapes.

Today water conservation has become a huge issue all over North America, however the fact that the new American government is specifically looking at irrigation efficiency should tell all of us in the horticultural industry that landscape water use is no longer flying under the radar.

Recently research has been done and studies are ongoing (in the U.S. as well as right here in Canada) as to how much water we actually use outdoors to keep our turf and landscapes green. In a recent study published by the OWWA (Ontario Water Works Association,) it was found that outdoor irrigation accounted for up to 50% of water used on properties during the summer months.

So why do we use so much water on our landscapes?

In the past, and still very much today, when an irrigation designer or contractor is approached by an landscape architect or another client they were simply asked to make sure that everything on site was watered and stayed green. The only concern irrigation designers and contractors had, was that there were no dry spots left on the property anywhere.

A large issue with how much water is wasted in irrigation has a lot to do with design and installation as well as the rapid pace at which we install construction projects.

In many cases a great landscape design will be produced and installed well, unfortunately, the irrigation contractor or designer is often not brought in on the project until the very end of construction or after the project has been completed. This results in irrigation being designed and installed as quickly as possible and with a minimal budget. The fallout of this practice is that corners are cut and the resulting irrigation system, while it currently may meet “traditional” installation quality standards, can in no way effectively use less water without additional upgrading.

Irrigation contractors and designers are not often given any information on plant and turf water requirements, and create designs and watering schedules that are appropriate only for the turf or plant species on site that they assume uses the most water or are the most susceptible to dying from under watering. As we saw in the previous section, the irrigation on a project is given the smallest portion of the total project budget (time and money) as a result a contractor or designer will try and create and zone an irrigation system to meet the budget rather than the landscapes needs. This practice results, in an irrigation system that will typically water the parking lot, sidewalks, buildings and while the grass stays green, the trees and shrubs on site will usually receive too much or not enough water.

Finally, over the years a misconception of irrigation systems has developed. We just assume that after the irrigation system is installed and the controller is set to “Auto” that we no longer need worry about the irrigation system or the plant material. As most landscape architects are aware of, turf and plant species require more water when they are initially installed and after they are established the plant material will need to use less water. This also applies to different times of the year. After turf and plants are established in a landscape their water requirements will change as the season does. When an irrigation system is scheduled on a new project it is scheduled for new plant material and it can often take a few seasons for someone to get around to changing the irrigation schedule to reflect that the turf and plant material has become established. Very often this never happens and because of this “set it and forget it” attitude most irrigation systems apply the same amount of water all year round. If we write an irrigation schedule based on hot dry summer months we will be over watering during the spring and fall.

Over watering contributes to plant/turf diseases and death, property damage, and with the rising costs of potable water can greatly inflate monthly operating expenses. If we take a birds-eye view of the process of landscape and irrigation design, installation and maintenance we can see that something is wrong. When we cut corners and rush at the design and installation level we will be using far more water than we need over the lifespan of the landscape and will increase maintenance costs for years to come.

So what is the solution to all of this?

Many of the new breed of irrigation professionals and consultants are working hard to get involved in landscape projects from their very inception. If we take a holistic approach to landscape and irrigation design and consider not just the new installation, but also the future maintenance, we will use less water. We can design quality irrigation systems that better reflect different plant species water requirements. We can manage and monitor irrigation systems remotely and make necessary schedule changes when they are appropriate. We can also look harder at advance irrigation control products that use data gathered from weather station networks and will make automatic adjustments based upon accurate plant species information and weather data.

There is no one single thing that will help us reduce water use in landscapes but there are many tools we can use and practices that we need to change.

In coming articles we will take a closer look at the problems associated with over watering, “conservation based” irrigation design principals and exciting new water saving technologies available to reduce our water footprint in the landscape.

Matthew Sandink is the Conservation Solutions Specialist and is responsible for Marketing at SMART Watering Systems. SMART Watering Systems is a water conservation & rainwater harvesting consulting firm with it’s roots in the landscape irrigation industry.

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