In the heart of Sonoma County in California, Peter Estournes thinks more about water than wine.
As vice president of operations for Gardenworks, a $2.5 million landscape management and design/build company, Estournes has made it his mission to manage water wisely in Northern California, and to teach others to do the same. “It is the cornerstone of our business, water management,” he says, adding that 10 of his 25 full-time employees have some type of irrigation certification.
Estournes serves on the California Department of Water Resources Independent Technical Panel whic is appointed by the state legislature to examine water management practices. A past president of the California Landscape Contractors Association, Estournes served as chair of the State Education Committee, and along with his business partner Jay Tripathi, helped to create the CLCA Water Management Certification and Performance Program. He teaches water conservation at Santa Rosa Junior College and at workshops for CLCA.
Yes, Estournes takes water management seriously. And he thinks you should, too. “I can’t think of a thing more important for the landscape industry right now than showing we can manage water on a job site. Because if we don’t, it’s going to be taken away from us,” he says.
Staffing tips for water managers
For the past year, in an attempt to hire a new irrigation technician, Gardenworks, located in the Sonoma Valley of Northern California, ran an ad in the local newspaper. They didn’t have much luck. A few people applied. Their only hire lasted a week.
Rather than rely on luck, Peter Estournes, vice president of operations, says the company created career path opportunities for existing employees who show aptitude and a desire to learn. The company implemented a point system, whereby employees earn points every time they master a new skill or attend an educational program. Points lead to raises in pay, and the opportunity to move up in job description and responsibilities.
“We have a gentleman right now showing a lot of potential with irrigation. We’re starting to initiate him on controllers. He’s beginning to take English classes. He wants to learn and get better. This is how it has to happen,” Estournes says.
The company also employs interns, some of whom have come to California from as far away as France. Estournes says he likes to have a paid intern work with the staff for about nine months so they become proficient and have the time to take a project from start to finish.
While most interns move on to other learning opportunities, occasionally, after venturing out into the wide world, an intern returns to Gardenworks fully trained and appreciative of the company’s positive work environment. One of the company’s past interns now runs an entire division.
“We don’t have a shortcut when it comes to staffing. I wish we did,” Estournes says. “Anyone who wants to move to California wine country that’s really good at irrigation, we are looking to hire them.”
One of the main tools Estournes and his staff use for water management is a water budget. Through a program developed with CLCA, landscape professionals input information such as a site’s square footage, irrigation type and plant material, and the program spits back a water management budget – an allocation of how much water should be needed to effectively manage water on that particular site.
“We really think that water budgeting is the key, not only to the future of the industry, but the real key to saving water,” he says.
When the nearby town of Cloverdale, home to 15 Gardenworks accounts, implemented mandatory water restrictions, Estournes contacted the municipality. He suggested the town implement CLCA’s water budgeting program, as opposed to the city having to create a methodology for water management from scratch.
After a 45-minute meeting, the city decided to do just that, and asked Estournes to lead a workshop for Cloverdale residents to educate them on plant selection and water conservation. “That’s advertising you can’t pay for,” Estournes says.
An attempt by the company to break out water management services “went nowhere,” Estournes says. “We tried to do that at a threshold of $35 per month for crews to come onto a property and look at controller settings, inspect for broken valves and make sprinkler adjustments, but the market wasn’t ready for that kind of standalone service.”
Instead, water management is included as part of every client contract. Creating the water management program, training staff and earning certifications took about seven years to implement company-wide. The first thing a Gardenworks crew does upon arriving at a job site is check the water meter. If the meter is spinning, the crew looks for leaks and troubleshoots.
Estournes says it’s hard to say how much a customer saves because the company doesn’t ask for a client’s water bills. But at the end of the year they provide a year-end report to each client in the program stating how the company did compared with the water budget.
“For example, if we have a project with a 5,000-square-foot landscape and our water budget calculates to a yearly use of 62,500 gallons of watering to meet that budget, our goal is to hit 80 percent of that target or be under by at least 12,500 gallons,” he says. “If the cost of water is $2.90 per thousand gallons then we have saved our client about $36.35.
“While this does not sound like much, it may be that before we began this process the client was overwatering by as much as 50 percent – often more – of what their landscape actually requires, which means they might have been at around 90,000 gallons per year. Our savings would then be more substantial both in water and money.”
Even though Gardenworks customers know water management is an important part of their service, Estournes says, “most of them don’t think about it until the end of the year when I send out the reports. Then I get about five or six thank you notes from customers saying, ‘I had no idea you saved me that much water.’”
The author is a freelance writer based in Mount Vernon, Wash.