Cover Story/Special Report: Surviving in a time of drought

As parts of the country anticipate emergency drought levels again this summer, water ownership is at the forefront of the irrigation debate. University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon who addresses groundwater use in his book, “Water Follies,” says, “Right now we pay less money for our water than we do for our cell phones or cable. People think wrongly that groundwater is as inexhaustible as air. We now know that groundwater is a finite resource. It is renewable only to the extent that it gets recharged by rainwater.”

According to Glennon, groundwater makes up nearly one-quarter of the nation’s water supply. Additionally, about one-half of Americans use groundwater as a drinking source. If a river is dry from lack of rain, the water you see trickling through is actually groundwater.

In his book, Glennon explains, “The designations ‘groundwater’ and ‘surface water’ merely describe the physical location of the water in the hydrologic cycle.” Groundwater can become surface water at one point in a stream, and surface water can become groundwater at a later point.

Glennon says that in the U.S. more water is pumped annually than is recharged. This causes several environmental problems like dry rivers and aquifers – effects we don’t realize until we are in the midst of a drought. Furthermore, most states do not regulate the use of groundwater. A permit is only required if a well is going to pump more than 100,000 gallons a day, or 36 million gallons a year.

“Think of an aquifer as a gigantic milkshake glass,” he says. “And each well drilled as a straw in that glass. Currently, our laws permit a limitless number of straws in the glass and that’s a recipe for disaster.”

Glennon offers several solutions for the problem of unregulated groundwater use, including allowing price signals and market forces to reallocate water and encourage conservation. He also says that the installation of wells and the amount of water they are allowed to pump should be closely regulated.

“The idea that in the midst of the worst drought on record, anyone in the whole state of Georgia can put in a well and pump 36 million gallons is absolutely preposterous,” he notes.

Innovative irrigation
One alternate source for irrigation is wells. There are two types of wells: deep and shallow. Brent Mecham, industry development director for the Irrigation Association, says deep wells pump from pockets of water that can take five to 10 years or longer to recharge. On the positive side, deep wells can supply water despite current weather conditions, so users can irrigate during droughts. However, if those pockets are not being recharged during a drought, Mecham says users may run out during years when others have water.

The benefits of installing a shallow well are faster recharge rates and less drilling expenses. But, Mecham says during a time of drought those wells and the underground rivers they draw from can be as dry as the rivers or lakes cities use as reservoirs.

Georgia Tech University in Atlanta, Georgia, uses a series of cisterns to irrigate its landscaping. They began developing this system prior to the drought in 2007, and according to Marcia Kinstler, director of environmental stewardship, it now holds nearly 200,000 gallons of water.

Warren Page, the director of operations and maintenance for Georgia Tech, says the cisterns collect condensate from the air-conditioning systems, which is later pumped out for irrigation.

The only downside to recharge programs like cisterns and aquifers is the possibility of a polluted water source. Storm runoff quality can depend on where it comes from. “You could be throwing a lot of pollutants right back into the ground,” Mecham cautions.

Surviving drought level 4
Since last summer, the city of Atlanta and the northern part of Georgia have been stuck at drought level four. All outdoor watering is banned, with the exception of restricted watering for new plant installations. Hugh Gibbs, the general manager for Gibbs Landscape in Atlanta, says adapting to the restrictions was difficult, but his company survived and even flourished. “Other industries were required to reduce consumption by 10 percent; we had to reduce by 100 percent,” Gibbs says. “It affected our business to a large degree. We had to re-educate our consumers and ourselves,” he says.

After consulting with companies in Florida, Gibbs Landscape began changing some of their water-use tactics, including using drought-tolerant plants and soil moisture retention products. They also evaluated customers’ irrigation systems and offering them efficient irrigation alternatives with weather stations or micro-emission irrigation systems.

“Some of our customers are now using 70-percent less water than they did before,” Gibbs says now.

Dave Johnson, director of corporate marketing for Rain Bird, says that using smart irrigation controllers may not be common right now, but there is legislation in the works in states like California and parts of Texas to make these kinds of systems mandatory.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” he says. “People get irrigation systems to save time and energy. What better way to do that than by making it all automatic?”

Johnson says that overwatering can be easily managed by checking for wet spots and water flowing down streets or sidewalks and then adjusting spray heads.

Additionally, Mecham suggests reducing fertilizer use so that plants are not stimulated to need more water, as well as choosing which areas of a landscape need irrigation most.

In Tucson, Arizona, Johnson says there are restrictions placed on the amount of turfgrass used in a landscape. He says in that region they try to help people see where native plants or other landscaping material can take the place of grass.

Another Colorado alternative used in 2002-2003 was lawn painting. Mecham says it was a viable option that used much of the same equipment he currentsly owns to put anti-desiccants down to slow the water from being transpired from the plant. And it made the lawn look greener.

Nature is also an ally in times of drought. Mecham recalls times of drought in Colorado and ways landscapers adapted there. “We went through [a drought] in Colorado and in reality, hardly anyone’s landscapes died,” he says. “We underestimate the resilience of plants to survive in tought times.”

WaterSense helps irrigation business grow in dry times
By Sheila Frace
Director, Municipal Support Division, U.S. EPA Office of Water

With nearly one-third of our limited residential water supplies going to landscape irrigation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes we can and must do something to improve landscape irrigation efficiency. Together we can help reduce inefficient outdoor water use and create beautiful, sustainable landscapes.

Water shortages can wreak havoc on the green industry. Drought conditions, as anyone in the Southeast or the arid West can tell you, can make business dry up in both the landscaping and irrigation industries. One recent example is Georgia, where estimates show that the ongoing drought claimed 35,000 jobs, nearly 44 percent of Georgia’s landscaping and irrigation work force, in 2007.

The good news is that landscapers and irrigation specialists have multiple opportunities to address water shortages while growing their business. Many water-efficient practices and technologies have emerged to address the staggering water loss seen in poorly designed and maintained residential irrigation systems. Understanding what and how these practices and technologies work, and getting recognized for using them, is now easy, thanks to the EPA’s WaterSense program.

WaterSense is a voluntary partnership program that identifies high-performance, water-efficient products and services. This national brand, backed by EPA for added credibility, offers a powerful marketing tool to attract water-conscious customers.

If you are a irrigation or landscaping professional interested in demonstrating your commitment to water efficiency, consider completing a WaterSense labeled certification program and becoming a WaterSense partner. There are several labeled irrigation professional certification programs from which to choose.

The Irrigation Association offers WaterSense labeled certification programs for landscape system designers, contractors, auditors and golf course auditors. The California-based North Coast Water Conservation Group’s Qualified Water-Efficient Landscaper program has also earned the WaterSense label.

Fast facts on groundwater

  • With less than 1 percent of the earth’s water being potable water, there is thirty times more potable water in the ground than in all of the rivers and lakes on earth.
  • 1.5 billion people depend on groundwater for drinking water.
  • Groundwater use in the United States was at 8 billion gallons per day in 1965. In 1995, it was 18.5 billion gallons per day. This is equal to 65 gallons for every man, woman and child in the country.
  • Overdrafting groundwater can lead to land subsidence – cracks or drops in the land, impacts on surface water and poorer water quality resulting from the intrusion of salt water or naturally occurring elements like fluoride or radon.
  • Groundwater is attractive due to its availability throughout the year and existence in most of the country as well as its uniform quality and low salinity. Surface water can be lost due to evaporation and infiltration during transmission through ditches.
  • Most states employ a “reasonable use” doctrine to govern groundwater, meaning pumping is allowed for any beneficial use and no real protection is offered to senior groundwater pumpers from pumpers of new wells.

Innovative Irrigation
Don’t wait to switch up your irrigation plan.

By Fred Minnick
The country is in a water crisis. Plants everywhere are thirsty. And states and cities are passing irrigation legislation and ordinances that are literally choking the life out of vegetation, making it more difficult for farmers, landscape professionals and even homeowners to water plants.

While the lawmakers have good intentions, hoping to save their voters a few drops of water, it is you, your clients and turfgrass that suffer. But in all honesty, it’s not the politicians’ fault if you don’t adapt to the marketplace. If you’re in a drought area and not preparing for tighter irrigation restrictions, you have nobody but yourself to blame, says Andy Smith, external affairs director for the Irrigation Association.

“If you wait until the crisis occurs to figure out a way to manage your resources better, it’s too late because you cannot conserve what you don’t have,” Smith says. “The responsibility of stewardship rests on all of us within the industry and all our related trades. Anytime we apply water in excess of what is needed to maintain the health and vigor of the plants is not part of the solution.”

Smith knows, too. After all, his association has helped spearhead the National Turfgrass Research Initiative. With more than 50 million acres of turfgrass in the United States with an estimated annual value of $40 billon and the annual value of turfgrass being greater than America’s corn and soybean crops combined, the initiative attempts to get the USDA Agricultural Research Service to make this a focus area of new research. One of the areas covered in the initiative is irrigation.

Smith says a lot of regulatory authority would like to take technology shortcuts. “They would have us install smart controllers that actually modify the irrigation schedule related to what the weather is doing outside and there are some issues with that,” Smith says. “You have to start with a good basic framework of a solid system that can deliver higher levels of distribution uniformity.

“Most sprinklers throw in circular patterns. Whenever you try to work a square front lawn (with a sprinkler), it creates challenges. Without good distribution uniformity right up front, it is very difficult to deliver an overall efficient result. The basics can never be neglected and those things have to come first before we apply technology fixes.”

Low-volume applications
Low-water irrigation systems are exempt from a lot of these restrictions,” says Stuart Spaulding, technical services manager for DIG Corporation and a certified landscape irrigation auditor. “They are the wave of the future because they are much more efficient ways to water turf.”

Herr says many municipalities are limiting the amount of turf allowed on landscapes because turf has a much higher water requirement than other forms of landscape. “Frankly, it just doesn’t make sense in some parts of the country to have a lot of turf and a good example of that is Las Vegas,” Spaulding notes. “It’s a desert climate and it takes an awful lot of water to keep turf going.”

From the irrigation manufacturer’s perspective, DIG Corporation is not facing the same challenges as other manufacturers because it specializes in low-volume systems. He says demand for DIG’s product lines have increased because of water restrictions and the company’s efforts in the industry.

“For other companies, it’s not that easy because they specialize in conventional sprinkler systems and conventional irrigation products,” he says. “For them, some of their markets are literally drying up.”

Legislation Roundup

  • In 2007, several states recorded the lowest rainfall totals in state history, including Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina and North Carolina. U.S. Secretary of Interior Dirk Kempthorne negotiated an agreement between Georgia, Florida, Alabama and the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers to free up more water for Atlanta by reducing downstream flows in the Chattahoochee River. The deal fell through within five days when Florida’s Gov. Charlie Crist pulled out after receiving intense pressure from his constituents.
  • California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger approved two bills affecting the irrigation industry. One bill directs a review of the Water Conservation in Landscaping Act passed in 1992. Hearings will be held by 2009, and the measure provides funding for the California Irrigation Management Information System. Another bill approved by Schwarzenegger creates a general permit system for use by landscape irrigation contractors using reclaimed waters.
  • The New Mexico Xeriscape Council received a $1.5 million grant to establish a water conservation center focusing on outdoor urban water efficiency in landscape. The Albuquerque center will be used for the procurement and development of infrastructure and equipment and will specialize in desert climates.
  • Fort Worth, Texas, approved year-round, mandatory water conservation regulations. The rules are in place even though North Texas is not experiencing drought conditions. Residents, who officials say use an average of 130 gallons of water every day, cannot use water between the hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. unless they use a hand soaker hose or drip irrigation.
  • Some North Carolina towns have eased their restrictions of late. For example, Cary and Apex town governments voted to ease restrictions on outdoor watering that began April 1. Both towns will allow residents to use outdoor irrigation systems and sprinklers on alternate days year-round.

Sources: Irrigation Association and wire reports

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