Wild in the West

Features - Cover Story | Focus on water: Drought

Droughts on the West Coast have forced strict watering restrictions in California, where companies and clients alike must learn new guidelines.

October 7, 2022

Photo © Jason | Adobe Stock

Alternative water conservation methods like drip irrigation and xeriscaping have long been a way of life in the west, but in California, landscapers are ramping up efforts to keep pace with rapidly changing restrictions.

As all 58 counties in the state are under a drought emergency proclamation, lawmakers are quickly imposing several rules to reduce water usage. For Justin White, it’s reminiscent of the early COVID-19 days, where essential business distinctions and social distancing rules varied from spot to spot.

“Like those laws in 2020, they’re putting the buggy before the horse here because they don’t have a clear enforcement plan,” says White, the CEO at K&D Landscaping.

Of course, there are some obvious tells that someone might be watering more than permitted — if their grass is bright green, it’s a clear indication that they’ve continued to water abundantly. But enforcing watering limitations — and punishment for those who don’t play by the rules — is a little trickier.

“It’s kind of like the pandemic. There’s not really a set guideline yet,” says David Price, the executive director at American Landscape. “Each county has their own interpretation of it at this point, so we’re trying to simplify it for ourselves at this point.”

In some parts of California, individuals may only water their lawns once a week.
Photo courtesy of K&D Landscaping

THE WILD WEST

Navigating the plethora of watering rules is tough because companies that operate in several counties might have different guidelines they must follow. Price says he’s found the statewide laws to be the most restrictive, so while each part of California may interpret those rules differently, he’s trying his best to abide by the statewide viewpoint.

In some parts of Southern California, lawmakers recently determined that individuals may only water their lawns once a week. In other areas of the state, most counties or municipalities are down to just two days a week, but some are restricted in that they can’t water until two days after rain. Some are limited strictly by just how much water they can use in total.

There are also some bans on watering decorative lawn areas in general. “Any lawn that is not where people gather, sports field or a park, has to stop being irrigated for the time being, which is significant,” White says. “We’re talking thousands and thousands and thousands of acres that are now going to go brown. We’ve advocated against this because we feel there are other restrictions that can go into place.”

For Price, he’s seen that some folks who use weather-based controllers are getting more wiggle room in their restrictions. The controllers are managing the water effectively if the technology is working appropriately anyway.

With that in mind, he hopes agencies start funding or roll out rebates to help kickstart widespread weather-based controller adoption.

For a period of time years ago, Price remembers when agencies would cover 80% of projects to do turf reduction, implementing drip irrigation or installing more native plants. The clients or municipalities would cover the remaining 20%. With this financial backing, they were even able to start using more high-density polyethylene piping rather than the more traditional copper piping, which is less prone to leaks.

But all that funding has dried up, so it’s been more difficult to ramp up the water-saving tactics necessary during the drought. And as California goes, so too does the rest of the West.

“California has been very much on the forefront of it,” Price says.

PLAYING BY THE RULES

Part of the strict restrictions are because homeowners, HOAs corporations and , yes, landscapers , weren’t able to abide by the early iterations of restrictions in the first place.

White says people weren’t respecting the irrigation limits, so he understands the drastic measures, even if he believes California could opt for more effective rules. White says fines can range from $500 to $10,000 for people or companies that don’t abide by the rules, and agencies are working with law enforcement to create community hotlines to report overwatering.

With pressure to deliver and without the infrastructure larger companies might have in their departments — many landscapers continued watering at will.

“There wasn’t a significant reduction in water within the entire community but specifically in landscaping. It comes down to not having the education or the resources,” White says. “A lot of landscaping companies are small, mom-and-pop places.”

For Price, it’s also been about slowly helping customers brace for the once-impending statewide restrictions. He’s spent three months showing clients with larger properties how the technologies work on sample zones, and for all clients, he’s been working the new technology into his estimating and job costing. They recently ordered hundreds of weather-based controllers because he believes that’s the way to work within California’s stringent rules.

“The biggest thing we’re seeing right now is controllers and weather-based controllers. That’s been a big push of ours,” Price says. “Their apps have gotten much, much more sophisticated in a good way.”

Price adds that it’s been easier to sell the water-saving benefits of these controllers to younger clients. Some older clientele, especially those who belong to boards on different associations, have a harder time wrapping their heads around using the apps to monitor water consumption.

“We’re finding the ones that are a bit on the younger side, they get it,” Price says, “and they’re very interested and they’ve already done some stuff on the personal property. Educating them isn’t very difficult. We’ve done it in baby steps with certain groups, and that’s been going really well, too.”

Those who use weather-based controllers can get more wiggle room in their restrictions.
Photo courtesy of K&D Landscaping

CUSTOMER COMMUNICATION

For their part, White says that clients have largely understood watering restrictions in California.

He hasn’t had any problems raising prices or offering services that some might perceive as more expensive, especially as drought problems have persisted for most of the last decade.

“The climate change conversation out here on the West Coast is continuing to hit front page news,” White says. “People are starting to feel a bigger responsibility to combat our impact on the planet, and water conservation is definitely on the list.”

Despite increased environmentalism in clientele, wallets are stretched as thin as ever with ballooning inflation. White admits his company’s water management bids were so much higher than the competition, so explaining how his program is much more comprehensive became imperative.

Plus, educating clients on why widespread adoption of new technologies are vital can be tricky. White has sent out plenty of press releases and has hosted lunch-and-learns with the community to talk about how his company can reduce water usage by roughly 30%. He recently hosted a summit in March where they brought together landscapers, politicians, water district managers and community members to explain his team’s standalone water management service.

While there’s an upfront cost of employing a water management team like White’s, he estimates he’s been able to save some clients up to three times what they had been paying on water bills despite the cost of the service itself.

K&D has built a department with 15 people dedicated strictly to water management, running weekly site reviews and managing WiFi-enabled controllers.

White partnered with a 15-year water management industry veteran and a retired irrigation supply company instructor to act as a consultant while he fleshed out the training program in 2020.

White says someone with essentially zero experience is put through a hardcore six-month training process, working in the office one day a week and out in the field four other days.

Then, White says the employees go out for their own apprenticeship to be an assistant technician, going out in their own truck to fix water lines and sprinklers without doing any major irrigation work. At the one-year mark, they take a certification process through the Irrigation Association.

“As we saw the drought getting worse over the last two years, we figured it was time to invest and launch that department,” White says.

Starting a water management division is one way companies can better serve West Coast clients.
Photo courtesy of K&D Landscapingg

COMPETITION KEEPING UP

White says his bids have been largely priced more than his competitors, who haven’t been able to train their own employees like he has at K&D Landscaping.

There’s little competition in the sector though, and those who do boast water management programs often just include it in their maintenance divisions, he says. White estimates the average landscaping company has five or six crews, and maybe one person on each crew dabbles with irrigation.

That’s not enough, White says. Oftentimes, this low ratio of irrigation technicians means they’ll just come out and program the controller three or four times a year.

So, when he hosted his summit in March, he even presented information on how they created a water management department to some of his competitors. He detailed how to kickstart the division and how to effectively price their jobs, which he feels are often undercharged.

“My philosophy is that we need competition in this sector to make it a viable sector,” White says.

White says one of the reasons they created their training program in the first place was because it was difficult to get irrigation techs in the door with the experience that warrants a high paycheck.

By working closely with his team, he’s able to get them the right experience necessary. He envisions a scenario where his employees earn six figures within five years of becoming an irrigation technician.

“We want them to make enough to live here in the Bay Area, which is expensive,” White says.

“You see landscapers struggle to get someone to $25 an hour because you need to have five, 10 years of experience. We’re able to get people to that level within a year.”

White adds that the longer irrigation is treated like an add-on service rather than a necessity, the industry will continue to struggle with helping the water conservation cause. For some spots in California, that’s going to continue to be problematic.

“(Irrigation) just didn’t get as much attention as trimming shrubs,” White says. “I see that a lot — I’ve seen it in our company, and I’ve seen it in other companies. It’s become obvious that it isn’t working.”

The author is associate editor with Lawn & Landscape.