Water: Don't take it for granted

In my home town in Central California, the city provided free water. Well, almost free. For a flat fee (and a small one at that), water use was unlimited. It's no wonder that people didn't hesitate to irrigate their entire landscapes throughout the long, hot summers there. Essentially, free water isn't exactly an incentive to conserve.

In most cities, that kind of situation no longer exists, if it ever did. Watering is frequently restricted to certain days or perhaps banned altogether during droughts. Or it may be that landscape managers are required to use recycled water, which forces them to adopt new irrigation-management strategies to cope with higher salt levels. When clean water is available, it may be rather expensive, placing a premium on efficient delivery of irrigation water.

Water-regulatory officials are well-acquainted with a concept they sometimes call “conservation pricing,” which involves one of the most basic economic principles: If something costs more, people will use less of it. As implemented by water utilities, it usually means a progressive rate structure for water pricing. In other words, the more you use, the higher the rate.

In a free-market economy, price and demand tend to achieve some balance on their own. In a regulated system, such as with public water utilities, conservation pricing requires artificially raising rates to achieve a reduction in consumption. But the effect is the same: a drop in use. (It's interesting that the concept is so easily embraced by public officials when it comes to water, but with energy, politicians are screaming for price caps. I guess it depends on where the money goes … but that's another story!)

One thing is certain: We might as well get used to living with more-expensive and less-plentiful water. The reason is simple: There are more of us exploiting the same finite resource. Actually, since the 1980s, total water use in the United States has been fairly level, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, despite a steadily increasing population. Much of this is due to better agricultural irrigation efficiencies and other conservation efforts. (Have you gotten used to your low-flow toilet yet?) But that won't last. Shrinking groundwater supplies and new emphasis placed on the needs of wildlife, among other factors, are increasing the competition for the remaining useable sources. Make no mistake about it — water supplies are going to tighten, and prices will rise.

The implications of this for the green industry are enormous. Landscape design, irrigation-system construction, plant selection, the price of a round of golf — all of these are bound to change if water becomes much more expensive, as it surely will sooner or later. Irrigation-system auditing seems to be a career with a promising future!

Water management in landscapes is a two-part equation, however. Delivering needed water and getting rid of unwanted water. Despite ever-tightening supplies, sometimes you face the opposite situation: too much water. That's when you need good drainage. It's also when you find out how important good rootzone management is. This month's focus is on irrigation and drainage, and our featured article discusses drainage in the most intensively managed turf systems — sand-based golf greens and athletic fields. You might think that nearly pure sand would provide flawless drainage, but it's not without potential problems. Find out more in “Drainage problems?” by Sam Ferro and Duane Otto of Turf Diagnostics and Design Inc., beginning on page 14.

When I was in college, I worked for a contractor in California. He specialized in residential work and frequently was hired to install irrigation in established landscapes. This required a lot of hand-trenching, but he didn't seem to think this was a problem. After all, he had me — at $5 an hour. Why bother with a trencher? Anyway, a machine wouldn't be able to do much of the job without damaging plants and turf. So with a pick and a trenching shovel, I carved out the necessary trenches to lay the pipe. These are perhaps my least favorite memories of landscaping. Blisters, a murderously sore back and a sunburn … these ailments would pretty much sum up my condition at the end of those days.

Recognizing that employees cost more these days, and that hard labor isn't exactly a magnet for recruiting workers, manufacturers have turned out machines that are much easier on existing turf and landscapes. Trenchless technology, mini-trenchers, directional borers and tracked equipment are tools available for irrigation installations that make the operation much easier on turf and ornamentals. This, in turn, means less of the work needs to be done by hand. Find out more in “Tools for efficient irrigation,” by James Houx, on page 28.

As water-use efficiency becomes more critical, drip irrigation is often the logical choice. As opposed to turf, nothing beats delivering water straight to the ornamental plants that need it. But why start from scratch if you have an existing irrigation system to work from? Converting to drip is the topic of this month's “How to,” written by landscape architect Steve McGuirk, beginning on page 44.

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