The water puzzle

The water puzzle

Features - Cover Feature: The Water Issue

As water concerns rise, industry professionals need to work together.

July 28, 2014
Kristen Fefes
Industry News

The fight over water is starting to change. I always used to say Colorado’s water situation is unique. We are one of two headwaters states that lets more water go than it keeps. The water that starts in Colorado belongs to several different entities downriver in other western states, and changing those river compacts is essentially impossible. Rainwater collection of any kind is illegal for that very reason – what falls from the sky is not ours to keep. Add arid conditions and more frequent drought cycles, and our landscape water is viewed as non-essential.

During the last 15 years, I have come to realize that everyone’s water situation is unique. Colorado’s drought was a headline for many years. But then North Carolina, Georgia, Texas and even parts of New York were challenged by water issues.Water availability and quality is not exactly a national problem, but it is a nationwide problem.

The ALCC board – my boss – spends a great deal of time talking about how we can influence water use. Part of that work is being able to deliver messages about water in the context of the value of landscape and the professionalism of those folks who design, build and maintain it. We believe sustainability in Colorado starts with water conservation. One challenge that seems universal is the regulation side of water – anything from watering restrictions to a city- or state-wide licensure. We struggle locally with water providers and the myriad restrictions that they put in place for landscape watering. There are roughly 200 water providers in the state of Colorado and they all have different rules – and those rules are not usually based on horticultural science. They’re based on infrastructure issues, peak demand and water delivery. Unfortunately, teaching people to water on Tuesday and Friday doesn’t help them understand how to better care for their plants. How much water does Tuesday use anyway? So while we understand why water providers make the decisions they do, we don’t usually agree with them.

But here’s the opportunity – we work with those water providers to be the messaging and content arm for their summer watering messages. It’s not a simple task, but it can be done. Denver Water, the largest provider with the largest reach in the state, has asked us to help them with their messaging.

In early 2013, it appeared that drought conditions were going to be severe. We approached the Colorado Water Conservation Board to do some consumer outreach, and they gave us a grant to develop factsheets and videos on various drought topics for all different kinds of consumers, from HOAs to homeowners. It’s opportunities like this where the green industry can shine.

As an industry, we can provide so many tools to our diverse audiences. Water budgets for both single-family and large commercial sites are something we can help develop. So are landscape standards or specifications for architectural review committees and municipalities. Community outreach that stops the client mentality of “keep it green or you’re fired” is within our reach.

Here’s my crystal ball for the future: Drought cycles won’t go away. In Colorado, we’ll always have a little bit of water or a really little bit of water. I am guessing California, New Mexico and Arizona will be the same, but we could see it in other, wetter places too. We need to change the culture of our communities and help them not only understand the value of landscape, but how critical water management is as part of that value proposition. It’s possible that regulation is part of the answer, but so are incentives that reward people.

Collaboration is key. We have partners in our customers, in our suppliers and, most importantly, in each other. Leveraging those partnerships moves the green industry away from a fight and positions us as the solution to solving the outdoor water puzzle.

The author is executive director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado.