It can happen to you

The Water Issue - Cover Story: The Water Issue

When a drought hit Connecticut, contractors looked to traditionally drought-stricken areas for solutions to the problem.

June 27, 2017
Brian Horn
© Jeannie Phan

It’s not drawing as much attention as drought worries in California, Texas or Florida, but a lack of water significantly hit a pocket of the Northeast that’s never experienced the problem to this degree before. Last summer, most of Connecticut was under a drought watch for the first time, and the restrictions were finally lifted in mid-June.

“Last year was a rude awakening,” says Dan Maki, vice president of property care and design/build at Glen Gate Company based in Wilton, Connecticut. “There’s a lot of people with big lawns and a big demand for water.”

Bruce Moore Sr., president and CEO at Eastern Landscape Management based in Stamford, Connecticut, says less rainfall, combined with average snowfall and an increase in population has created the perfect conditions to start a drought.

“The demand has gone up. And I live right near within a mile of our largest reservoir,” he says. “You do see in the summertime it drops down substantially. Last winter, it was basically empty.”

Whether it’s a random occurrence or a sign of something bigger, customers are finally coming around to the idea of water conservation, or at least, more open to it than in the past because of the drought and water rates increasing.

“There’s more concern because the weather patterns seem to be changing,” says Maki, whose company services residential customers.

“The streams aren’t flowing as they use to be. I’ve noticed it myself because I’m a fisherman. I could tell there has been a problem. The rivers don’t seem to stay up as high as they usually did before.”

Moore says the drought has made his customer base, which is 100 percent commercial, start to come around to being more responsible with irrigation.

Moore estimates interest in water-efficient technologies has increased 50 percent compared to five years ago.

Though the drought watch was lowered to a drought advisory in Connecticut, residents are being asked to continue to water efficiently.

“Over probably five to 10 years, we’ve been trying to push the smart controllers and using drip irrigation and things like that for more efficient use of water,” Moore says. “But then the feedback that we get from the client is that the payback isn't substantial enough to do the retrofits because their cost of water is so low, which now that is changing.”

Follow the leader.

Though the drought watch is over, residents are being asked to continue to water efficiently. The rule now is you can only water two days a week, but Moore says that is not a sustainable regulation.

Moore describes his area of Southwest Connecticut as the “Gold Coast of the East” with some very large estates that consume hundreds of thousands of gallons of water over the course of the summer.

“You’re not going to get total compliance,” he says.

Moore and Maki have both kept an eye on what contractors are doing in states that have experienced serious drought problems.

While rainwater catchment systems haven’t been very popular with Connecticut residents, customers are more open to drought-tolerant plants and water-efficient technology.
© kodachrome25 | iStockphoto

Moore hasn’t had to rip out turf, but native plants are now more of an option along with increased interest in drip irrigation and remote sensors. “If we can get people to use the smart controllers and selecting proper landscape plants, maybe even cutting down turf areas – a lot of things they've done out West – that will bring the water usage down on its own,” Moore says.

Eastern Landscape Management has been promoting the use of perennial plants in areas like parking lot islands instead of having plants that would need water or could get damaged in winter months.

“We've tried to encourage clients when they were doing upgrades or something to the landscape is to in areas like that ... to go with some perennials where they would get coverage during the growing months and actually color if so desired,” Moore says.

“But then during the winter, they basically go into dormancy and they're not an obstruction or there's really no risk of damage. They just come back the following year.”

Maki has talked to contractors in Texas, because they are much more advanced in dealing with drought, and he’s learned to try new turf types.

“We’re moving more toward how do we do native plants or plants that need less water,” he says “I’ve been pushing the turf type tall fescue grass. The roots go deeper and use less water. It’s a good grass and it’s very lush.

Moore has suggested to property owners that they should have a second water meter installed that only measures irrigation water. With that installation, a property manager can subtract the water used for irrigation off the sewer tax bill because water for irrigation doesn’t go into the sewer system.

Once the irrigation water use is documented, property managers can subtract that from the sewer tax bill. If you only have one meter, all the water used is calculated into the bill.

“By having a separate water meter, they can say, ‘Okay, we use X amount of gallons for landscape irrigation,’ and they'll let you subtract that off the sewer tax bill,” Moore says.

Along with offering smart controller and drip irrigation, Eastern Landscape Management has offered water audits to customers for years, but was met with little interest.

ELM has been promoting the use of perennial plants in areas like parking lot islands, instead of having of turf or plants that would need a lot water.

The company would check the type and size of nozzles being used and then calculate the run time.

Moore says even though they charge for the audits, more property managers are open it.

“We've done that on several occasions,” he says. “Just to bring to the attention of the property manager how much water they potentially could be using.”

Hesitant, but smarter.

While customers are more open to paying for water efficiency, there are still options they aren’t buying.

Moore says customers still don’t have an interest in retrofitting old irrigation systems. Glen Gate has sold a few rainwater catchment systems, but Maki says the return on investment still isn’t there for most.

He says the systems would be sold more on the idea of being environmentally friendly rather than a money saver.

“It’s hard to push it when you have a pond next to you, Maki says. “It’s hard when everything is so green right now.”

But Maki says the rule to only water twice a week may result in better looking yards since a lot of people overwater their plants.

“It’s not just good for drought but good for plants,” he says. “You’re doing things the smart way.” And while no one wants to be part of a drought, it has raised awareness to those who may have never thought about it before.

“The fact that water is – and it doesn't matter where you live – it's becoming a more precious commodity,” Moore says.

“And in the Northeast, where we do get a fair amount of rainfall, we've kind of ignored that or taken that for granted and can no longer do that. That need to treat it as a natural resource and that it’s going to potentially go away at some point if you allow it to.”