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Conservation loves a crisis

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America has a problem with its water. Landscapers are part of the solution.

Chuck Bowen | October 9, 2013

LAS VEGAS – I spent a couple days last week at the WaterSmart Innovations conference. Mostly, attendees come from municipal and regional water agencies. There are also plumbers, landscape contractors and the EPA (except when the government is shut down and they can’t attend).

Consider it a TED conference for water use. It’s the only meeting of its kind where all those folks can get together and talk about the new programs, technology and tactics they’re using to conserve water. The format is fast-paced: Each day opens with the small trade show, and then half-hour sessions run from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Each presentation is quick and focused, and tracks run from landscape water use to marketing to codes to alternative sources.

The conference is the brainchild of Doug Bennett, conservation manager at the Southern Nevada Water Authority, the smartest guy in a room full of a thousand smart people. I caught up with him after he won the Water Star Award from the Alliance for Water Efficiency to ask him how landscapers fit into the water question.

"Landscapers are the most critical stakeholders in my area. We can't get where we're going by simply regulating everything out of existence,” Bennett says, citing the sometimes tenuous relationship between landscape contractors, utilities and regulators.

“Everything,” he explained, means agencies reacting to a drought by banning all outdoor water use, as one example. “Give people an outlet,” he says. “Running small businesses out of business is not a way to make friends and influence people."

Instead, he says, agencies and contractors alike should use the drought as an opportunity to increase business and implement long-term conservation measures in one pass. In his case, he used the drought as a tool to increase conversions from rotor-based irrigation to drip systems. "Conservation,” he told me, “loves a crisis."

WaterSmart Innovations is not a conference designed specifically for landscapers – though there’s plenty there for them to take in. And it was interesting to hear the perceptions of landscapers from many attendees. On the level, it was mostly neutral, but they see contractors as an integral part of whatever solution – or solutions – to the water crisis we come up with.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended was a study of water restrictions and water budgets for landscape contractors in Austin.

Lesson in Texas. Since 2007, the city of Austin has been under stage two restrictions for two years, so homeowners can only water once per week. So, no matter what the weather is, everyone on a certain street waters on Tuesday, another neighborhood Wednesday and so on.

Landscapers in the city asked to be exempt from the rule, and to be allowed to water as plant materials required. They agreed and developed a pilot program. Large-scale commercial properties were given quarterly water budgets based on historical ET measurements. Rain events and system efficiency (beyond a system working well enough) weren’t taken into account.

The city held a lottery for interested applicants. Out of 90 total applications, just 15 made it into the program. Turnage says 63 percent of properties failed an initial inspection of the irrigation system, mostly due to being in poor condition, mostly.

The first group of applicants were water management companies; the second round comprised landscape maintenance companies. Properties were dismissed if they went over budget two quarters in a year or by 50 percent any one quarter.

Turns out, the restrictions work better than the budgets: Control properties showed greater water savings under the restrictions than the new program. Turnage says water management companies performed well, but aren’t widespread, even in Austin. Almost all the companies that failed – 94 percent – were landscapers. David Turnage, conservation program specialist at Austin Water.

Turnage says that the best results depended on the person in the field managing the system day to day, and that most companies and property owners found it easier to operate under the restrictions.

Other news and notes from the show include:

Congrats to IA: The Irrigation Association was recognized as an EPA WaterSense Partner of the Year for the group’s work to promote the program to professional contractors. IA is the first certifying organization to win the award, and association president Bob Dobson (pictured above with IA brain trust Brent Mecham, Deborah Hamilin and John Farner) was on hand to accept. 

“The EPA and WaterSense recognize the contributions the IA has made to the WaterSense program. Efficient use of our water supplies and maintaining a healthy landscape, including turf, can go hand in hand. They are not necessarily contradictory,” Dobson told me after the ceremony. “Our future is becoming part of the solution to the water supply problem."

John Taylor, owner of Taylor Irrigation Service in Houston, won the WaterSense Partner award for landscapers. 

Cash money: The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California has started paying rebates directly to contractors. You need a background check and a few other hurdles, but customers can now sign over monetary incentives on system upgrades, etc., directly over to you. 

Number crunchers: California is tying water savings to energy savings, because it takes so much electricity and fuel to pump, truck and pipe it from the mountains to population centers in Southern California. Utilities are looking at the "avoided cost of water" to see how much money is being saved (in energy not used, etc.) thanks to conservation efforts in the state, and also working to quantify the amount and cost of water lost to failing infrastructure.

Let’s go outside: Indoor water use has been squeezed like a sponge (pun intended) as far as it can go, so outdoor use is going to be a greater focus for water agencies, utilities and regulators. That's good and bad for contractors: Good because it means there's even more opportunity for them to position themselves as water management advisers, and bad because it means the worst parts of the industry are going to be highlighted and exploited as inefficient and wasteful.

Cool new product: On that point, Peter Carlson, vice president of product management at HydroPoint showed me the Belkin Echo, which can detect changes in a home's water pressure of .002 PSI. The sensor connects via wifi to a web-based app that tells homeowner in real time how much water he’s using, where he's using it and how much he's currently paying in charges for that water. It should come out in the spring.

The nation’s front yard gets wet: Friend of the magazine Brian Vinchesi was on hand talking about his work to renovate the irrigation system at the National Mall in Washington. Stay tuned for our November issue for more details on that massive project.

Water-only: In Florida especially, there’s a move by companies already in pest control to more water management services (Massey’s recent push into irrigation services comes to mind) because they are big enough to handle the training and marketing of those people and services to an existing base. Standalone water management companies can make a go of it in the large commercial/HOA space, but aren’t viable in the single-family home market.

Conclusion: The bottom line is that water is still the most pressing worry for many Americans, and it’s not going to get any better any time soon. As long as humans are in charge of how water is used, it’s going to be wasted. Landscape contractors are positioned well to act as water advisers and really help their clients manage this scarce resource effectively. As Warren Gorowitz, vice president of sustainability and conservation at Ewing, told me on the show floor: “Plants don't waste water. People do.”

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