Solid solutions for fluid problems

Features - Cover Story

Drought left contractors and water providers burned. Together, they changed the forecast.

July 15, 2013
Kyle Brown

Kristen Fefes from ALCC

Dealing with drought is a way of life in Denver, with wet and dry cycles that challenge landscapers throughout the year. When those cycles run to the extremes and restrictions start stacking up, it’s easy for contractors and water providers to make accusations of careless watering or excessive restrictions.

But during an extreme dry spell, rather than shifting blame and making excuses, the industry came together to change the rules of the conservation game to benefit everyone.

Many rivers that supply water to the western U.S. get their start in Colorado. But thanks to decades-old contracts with other states, not all of that water gets to stick around. On top of that, the state only has so much storage to work with, which is in danger every time a weak winter doesn’t provide much snow melt.

That was the case in 2002 when Colorado faced one of the deepest droughts it had in years, says Kristen Fefes, executive director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. “We’d been in a dry cycle for a few years by 2002 and we had very little moisture over the winter, very little snow melt. So water shortages were declared across the board and it caught everybody off guard. Nobody was prepared for it.”

The restrictions came down fast, and contractors watched as both landscapes and profits dried up. Conservation practices appeared, but they looked to be too little too late, says Brian Peck of Environmental Designs. Communities cut back to fewer days of watering, or even practices like placing a brick in the toilet tank to conserve usage, but these steps only pointed out the size of the problem.

“That was a tremendous wake-up call,” Peck says. “We realized it’s not an infinite resource, and it’s getting expensive. It got to the point that a lot of landscapes were harmed because of the inability to water. As far as an industry perspective, a lot of guys were just worried about surviving the year.”

Courtesy of Denver Water

Joining forces.
The drought caused a lot of work to vanish. Irrigation improvements could be completed, but there wasn’t any water to run through the systems. The fight continued on with water providers keeping a wary eye on water levels. They saw reservoirs dipping to new lows and an intense wildfire season fueled by the same drought. From every angle in the industry, everyone was paying attention.

But not many of those people were talking to each other, says Jeff Tejral, manager of water conservation at Denver Water.

“We all got caught by it,” he says. “We weren’t discussing what it meant to be a water provider, and what it meant to be the landscape industry. We didn’t talk about restrictions, what they should look like or how we communicate about them. It became a lot more of a fight than a collaboration.”

Tensions settled a bit when a snowstorm came through in 2003 that lifted the drought pressure, and gave the industry a little bit of breathing room.

But another drought would always potentially be on the way – and arguing hadn’t solved the problem the previous year. Without water for landscaping, the strength of the industry as a whole was at risk, Fefes says.

“In 2003, we felt as an industry that the target was on our back,” she says. “Water planners thought the answer to everything was to just lop off the top of the bell curve of water usage, and that was us. That’s outdoor summer watering. So our goal was to get the target off our back.”

The ALCC wasn’t the only group feeling the pressure. The 2002 drought had exposed just how little science was behind the restrictions for water providers as well, Tejral says. The time had come to set standards. Both groups came together with Green Industries of Colorado or GreenCO – representing other segments of the industry – to determine best practices for water management.

Working together on the collection of best practices made the different groups collaborate in a new way. Water providers, association members and contractors met to discuss how they could use the findings of university studies done on water management to help the industry and the community.

Get going
Water restrictions are difficult to deal with from any angle, but they’re easiest to handle when working with other industry groups. But just getting groups to discuss their concerns seems impossible. It’s important to highlight the need to discuss water responsibility within the industry rather than relying on others to start the conversation, says Jeff Tejral, manager of water conservation at Denver Water.

“I think having the broader discussion with an industry group like ALCC is one of the best ways to start. It’s important to really build that ethic internally: We have to do this, it’s who we are as a business. Then you can broaden the discussion” he says. “I think that’s where a water provider can help, where you can build programs and really work together with them.”

But just creating those guidelines isn’t enough. The ALCC and others pushed to work those best practices into various codes and laws, and have succeeded in being a part of two statewide laws so far, encouraging smart use of water and xeric landscaping in new developments. “Our overall goal is to get them really set as the standard as what people turn to and require for landscaping,” Fefes says.

Beyond those practices, water providers have set up some rebates for homeowners and commercial managers to soften the blow of the initial investment for products like high-efficiency nozzles.

But even the rebate program is part of a greater effort by both groups to get the right message out to the end user.

Through a grant under the GreenCO umbrella, fact sheets and videos about drought went to consumers. Those tools introduced the concept of Xeriscape and could show how an efficient sprinkler system saves both money and water.

Spread the word.
Through all the work came some good news. The public is now learning about water restriction, Peck says.

“I was speaking at a manager’s meeting for a very large management company this week, and the first question I asked the 40 people there was, ‘How many of you are aware we’re under varying restrictions right now?’” Peck says.

“Every single one of them knew we were in it. We get inundated with the info out here with media, TV, radio. It’s everywhere you go.”

If the media information isn’t enough, Denver contractors have an additional resource when talking to property managers about smart water usage – the water providers. Denver Water provides water audits to determine the best places to conserve without putting the pressure on the landscaper, Tejral says.

“We’re not trying to judge the landscaper or the property,” he says. “We’re saying, ‘What’s the condition of the property right now and how do we improve that?’ It’s a very different discussion than what people expect.”

With each branch of the industry coming together with a focus on educating end users and encouraging conservation with rebates and smart installations, the discussion with those consumers has shifted since 2002, Peck says.

“It’s evolved,” he says. “Now we’ve got more support, because in this season, you’ve got to do something different. You don’t have a choice now. We’ve been trying to institute a new message.” L&L

The author is editor of Green Industry Supply Chain Management Magazine.