On the mend

It’s still unclear how contractors will approach their work in states like California and Utah, where droughts have ended – for now.

Though the droughts are over, contractors know they could find themselves right back amidst a drought at any time in the near future.
© Christina Chung

Despite the fact California lifted its statewide drought designation earlier this spring, California Landscape Contractors Association’s Sandra Giarde says it’ll still be business as usual for landscapers.

Giarde, the CLCA executive director, points out that parts of California are already teetering back on the edge of a drought again. Laws have yet to change that were put into place to conserve water during the drought, such as rules against hosing down concrete sidewalks. Those bans will only slowly be lifted by each municipality over time, if they’re even lifted at all. And though the governor’s announcement that the drought concluded marked an official end to one of the driest times in the state’s history, Giarde says landscapers factor drought into everything they do.

“For us in landscaping, water conservation is a way of life. A declaration of the governor doesn’t really change anything about what we do,” Giarde says. “Our members very smartly realized that drought in California is pretty much a new normal.”

This year’s winter was wetter than usual for most of the country, and Paul McFadden says California was no different. McFadden is the president of the California Agricultural Irrigation Association, as well as the director of purchasing at RPO Water, which installs irrigation systems in California. He says the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountains offers 33 times more coverage this year than at this time last season. Some communities have even had to release water in their reservoirs just to make room for some of the snow melt.

“There’s a lot of snow in the mountains, so that’s a good sign for the West, not just California,” McFadden says.

California isn’t the only state that lifted its drought designation earlier this year. Utah moved off the drought designation in April, this despite the fact the 2017-18 water year was among the driest ever in the state, according to an ABC report.

That same report also showed 73 percent of the state under a severe drought, 47 percent under an extreme drought and 7 percent under an exceptional drought in October 2018. Local landscape contractor and business owner Alec Naylor said at one point, an entire city shut down their secondary water system – used for landscaping purposes – a month early because of a severe shortage.

In September of 2018, six counties were in a state of emergency with local reservoirs sitting at an average of only 57 percent full.

Fast forward six months, and the drought was officially cancelled. Good snowpack in the mountains helped to restore moisture to some of Utah’s driest areas, and rising temperatures encouraged runoff and precipitation in Utah’s valleys.

Though the droughts are officially over, the effects linger into the summer work season for contractors, especially as they could find themselves right back amidst a drought at any time in the near future.

Turf removal might have conserved water in California, but also contributed to a rise in temperatures in the area.

A political push.

McFadden says in general, the issue of water infrastructure being ignored for so long might have been most problematic during the drought. He says some estimates show that older pipes beneath the ground leak over 10 percent of the water brought through them, meaning it’s being absorbed back into the dirt.

Among other issues, McFadden believes that infrastructure had never been on the forefronts of anybody’s minds until the drought became historically long.

“It’s not a glitzy or sexy project to talk about. ‘We’re going to put new canals in,’ nobody wants to talk about that,” McFadden says. “But we’re going to build a high-speed bullet train from one end of the state to the other for $100 billion, that gets people’s attention.”

McFadden says the state noticed its heat signature rise once turf was removed, so while he believes water was likely conserved by taking this drastic measure, the long-term unintended consequence was contributing to warmer temperatures.

In Las Vegas, the city is paying homeowners to get rid of their lawns and replace them with artificial grass to save water. McFadden says this is a hypocritical practice.

“It looks really good to take (a) lawn out and replace it with rock, but don’t touch the casinos because that’s a big tax revenue for us and the state,” McFadden says. “It’s a political football, but I think it’s driven some technology improvements on the irrigation side for homeowners. It certainly has for agriculture.”

Like McFadden, Giarde is unsure how many people will turn back now and replant their lawns with the drought’s official conclusion. Some clients didn’t want so much turf, some want native plants and some are leaning into their environmental surroundings with bare front yards.

“You’re always going to have clients who turn around and say, ‘Yes, I live in Los Angeles but I want a lush, green, lots-of-turf English garden,’” Giarde says. “And you can meet with those clients and you can talk about lots of ways that can be achieved using techniques, irrigation strategies, current tools and products that are available to you that will still minimize the water use.”

Alec Naylor, owner of Naylorscapes, based in Sunset, Utah, says contractors have a responsibility to keep up on water conservation practices and educate others about droughts.

Common ground.

Naylor, owner of Naylorscapes based in Sunset, Utah, says his business grew up with the drought. He started Naylorscapes about 10 years ago when the drought had just started to get bad and he says his company has been pushing for smart water use ever since.

“We have no plans to change how we operate,” he says. Naylor has worked to educate clients on common myths: A popular one he battled is that more grass means less maintenance, because “all you have to do is mow.” A larger issue centered around clients asking to use culinary water for their sprinkler systems instead of the secondary water from the city.

“They hear that the secondary water is what causes diseases or staining or they don't want to clean out their filters,” he says. And, of course, he explained to his clients that less grass is less maintenance.

“The more grass you have, the more time you spend on a weekly basis. You have to mow it, you have to water it, you have to fertilize it. You have to go through and fix any dry spots,” Naylor says. “And at the end of the year you spend, I'm going to say two to three hours or even more, maybe three to four hours a week just on the grass.”

Naylor also tries to encourage his clients to install drought-resistant landscapes through education. “Ninety-five percent of the time, it’s an eye-opening experience for (the customer),” he says. He also does his part to keep up on the latest water conservation efforts by attending educational seminars and meetings.

“We keep ourselves educated on the subject and that's the most important tool that we have,” Naylor says. “(We’re) constantly changing to be able to adapt to the weather conditions that are around us.”

Naylor has created some hard and fast rules to accommodate the lack of water. For example, the company simply won’t install grass in park strips, the area between a sidewalk and a street. “You can’t just install what the customer wants (during a drought),” he says. Only smart controllers are installed on irrigation jobs, and the company installed a drip irrigation system that will only water plants in a flower bed, avoiding water being wasted on ground covers.

“Sprinkler system designs have made a 180 in the area in the last 20 years,” Naylor says. “Luckily, we were able to take advantage of that from day one to make sure that we made it a priority that all of our sprinkler systems are well designed and very efficient.”

City officials are spending more time patrolling for code violations like watering outside time restrictions, and Naylor says he’s seen more citations being issued.

The company plans to continue their water smart, drought tolerant practices even with the drought technically over.

“When we do have a good year for water like we have this year, it seems to me that people kind of forget about years past, so I still plan to go forth with the other water conservation efforts,” he says. “It’s up to landscape contractors to implement these practices in their business. We have a kind of responsibility in the industry to be at the forefront of this issue, not only in Utah, but across the United States. We need to keep up on education in the subject.”

In the long run, Naylor says it’s the businesses that recognize their role in the environment that will withstand the test of time – and Mother Nature.

“The contractors that do keep up the education and keep up the efforts are going to be the ones that make it in the long run,” Naylor says. “Because Utah is a desert state and always has been, and we're just lucky enough some years to have more water than usual.”

July 2019
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