It was a rainy workday when Paul Fields, president of Lambert Landscape Co., watched money just pouring off his roof.
He was watching rainwater stream off the company’s 6.5-acre roof and into the storm drain. His Dallas-based business could really have used all of that water. After all, it was paying to hook up to the local fire hydrants to mix its compost tea.
Much of Texas has been in a drought for three years, and the forecasts for the summer don’t look good. The Texas A&M Forest Service has reported that approximately 301 million trees died in rural Texas because of the 2011 drought. And as the drought has carried on, the number may now be creeping closer to 500 million.
“It’s gotten pretty bad here and our growing population is a big part of the problem,” Fields says. “Just for our area, the Dallas/Fort Worth region, it’s estimated that the population will double in the next 25 years. If you consider that the water supply through our reservoir systems is already limited, it’s obvious there’s going to need to be a solution.”
The company is already working toward being part of that solution with services like rainwater catchment and harvesting. “The need for change is already here," Fields says.
To show its own commitment to rainwater harvesting, for its first project, the company installed a 20,000-gallon cistern to catch the water pouring off the roof. It uses that water – instead of the city’s – to mix its fertilizer blends, saving approximately $800 a month.
And while the water conservation started in-house, Fields says Lambert’s entire business model takes water use into account.
“This whole theme of water has become integral to every step and process of our business,” Fields says. “It’s not something we market as a stand-alone service – it’s just part of our overall philosophy. The integration of water conservation starts with design and carries through the entire process.”
The biggest benefit to the client/property manager is cost and water savings. Many businesses are also implementing sustainability programs or going for LEED certification so this is a huge contributor toward that, he says.
The company has run some ROIs on several of these systems and no matter the size of the cistern, the company always finds that it's a six to eight year return on investment.
“It's not something you can just jump into if you're looking at more involved systems but there are definitely systems out there that are ‘plug and play’ where you basically get a kit and hook it into the drain line and you're done,” he says.
“A landscape company who was interested in this could install prefab systems with just a little bit of training. Getting into it on a larger scale – actually designing a system – is a bigger learning curve. We only recently started marketing these systems within the last 18 months or so. They've gained interest through word of mouth.”
Not a simple sell.
Although Texas has been experiencing severe drought conditions, and homeowners are beginning to feel some effects of water rationing, they haven’t been hit hard enough to want to forgo their lush landscapes – at least not yet.
Fields says that selling water-efficient landscapes does require some client education. The result has been the realization that clients are able to have water-conscious landscapes that save water while still looking great.
“I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice in this industry by how we’ve presented water-wise landscapes,” Fields says. “Clients will say ‘I don’t want that,’ right off the bat. But when we dig deeper we find out it’s because they think it has to be all rocks and cactuses to be water-efficient. We’ve structured our business around allowing clients to still have beautiful gardens in their style with the use of plants that are water-wise. They’re a lot more beautiful than clients realize.”
In addition to focusing on water conservation efforts for each new design/build project, Fields says that the company also helps existing clients retrofit their older systems with more water-friendly equipment and drip irrigation.
Although the company doesn’t track the water portion of their business as a stand-alone service, Fields says it’s helped the company’s bottom line.
“I can tell you that our revenue is up 20 percent this year but there's no way we can attribute that all to rainwater harvesting,” he says. “Certainly it's played a role but I can't give you any number to pinpoint exactly how much of a role. We do believe it's been a positive impact but we don't track it independently.”
But sometimes it just has to hit the pocketbook first. As water rates rise, Fields believes the interest in water collection and conservation services will also increase.
“Supply and demand is going to dictate more interest in services like rainwater catchment,” Fields says. “With a limited number of reservoirs, which are already at their capacity for demand, water rates will increase drastically. I think that the ROI for cisterns and rainwater catchment systems is going to continue to become more cost effective and will continue to pique clients’ interest.”