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The problem with a general treatise on irrigation and water management is that conditions can vary so radically from place to place. The way Seattle deals with its water will be worlds apart from its relatively close, but far drier neighbor, Yakima.
Some Western states are in a relative crisis, while others are just getting by. Meanwhile, states and regions in high rainfall areas are probably more concerned with runoff than drought.
However, drought can affect areas that normally get good rainfall, so long-range preparation for the worst is not only prudent, it's simply good government.
We recently spoke with a couple of experts from the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), based in Austin. Though they mentioned the difficulty in providing a one-size-fits-all solution, there are important first steps that all agencies should take.
First, is to audit all department water consumption. It's very important to monitor and measure the output. This provides accountability and can also prove the agency's conservation success to what can be a cynical council or board.
The additional step toward accountability is to have the department pay its own water bill specific to its usage.
"One of the issues that can be difficult, at least in some cities, is that they don't always meter their facilities. It may be rolled up into a large municipal figure, so it's very hard to have accountability. I've talked to people who work in water conservation around the country, and some of the hardest folks to convince are those in the parks department, because they're not paying the bills, so there's not necessarily a budgetary connection," says Nora Mullarkey, senior conservation coordinator for LCRA.
"In the West especially, with drought in places in like Colorado and New Mexico, people are being told to quit watering. It's more of a restriction, versus saving water for the city's budget. It's far better to find out what the real drivers are behind parks and recreation cutting back. Is it because there's no water supply, someone's asking them to cut back, or some other factor?"
Metering can be expensive, but if it can be shown that the initial cost will be paid for in water -- and by extension, cash -- savings, it might not be a difficult sell. These efforts should be included in the development and design of new park space and facilities.
Once these issues are resolved a successful audit will provide the baseline for employee training. If, for example, employees who mow athletic fields understand that they need to be especially careful about running over sprinkler heads, and replacing those heads with the correct and compatible heads, the water savings of this simple detail will pay large dividends.
An audit will help point out what bad practices are currently in place, and can be replaced with good practices. For instance, an incompatible replacement head on a sprinkler system will show up in the audit and identify that practice that needs to be corrected.
Mullarkey points out that a clear understanding of what's driving conservation, plus an audit, will provide better and more precise conservation direction. "In the mid-'80s the city of Austin had a capacity problem, so they retrofitted some of their pools to make them recycling pools. The driver there became a capacity rather than budget issue. The drivers will determine where you focus your efforts," she says.
Mullarkey also recommends better intergovernmental communication, particularly with the water and water quality departments. It's a cliché of sorts, but not enough people tap into the importance of networking both outside and inside city, county, state and federal governments.
"What I'd like to get people to focus on is long-term water efficiency. If you're able to wean your landscape and system so that it can tolerate droughts you'll be better off in the long run," says Mullarkey.
"Budget into a long-range capital improvement plan one step at a time to do the things that will prepare your system for drought, such as installing rain sensors, metering, purchasing technology and retrofitting park land with drought-resistant and native grasses and plants."
Jobaid Kabir, manager for corporate environmental compliance, says, "More thought needs to be put into planning in terms of shading the land, what types of slopes and soils are present, what types of planting you put in different areas, and where to catch runoff, among other factors."
That's why Kabir emphasizes technology, such as an intelligent irrigation system that puts water in the right place at the right time, taking into account the myriad environmental factors present -- soil, slope, weather, wind, forecast, vegetation, and so on.
Again, the factors are so various and so localized, even within a city's limits, that not one solution works universally. Plus, some budgets simply do not have room for such things as intelligent irrigation. And that's where the aforementioned audit and subsequent renewed training effort come into play.
Kabir and Mullarkey offer the following resources -- in addition to local agriculture extension agencies -- that provide excellent direction and best management practices...
WaterWiser: The Water Efficiency Clearinghouse, www.waterwiser.org. This Web site is a great resource for water conservation studies, articles, books, etc. It also has an email group that you can subscribe to for up-to-date questions and answers relating to water conservation. Sponsored by the American Water Works Association and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Aquacraft, Water Engineering and Management Inc. , www.aquacraft.com. This is a private company that has performed several significant water conservation evaluation studies for such clients as the AWWA and the EPA.
The Irrigation Association, www.irrigation.org/consumer_info. The IA has developed the Irrigation Consumer Bill of Rights for Turf/Landscape and Your Professional Irrigation Contractor: What You Should Know. These are both available on this Web site.
The Federal Energy Management Program (FEMP), www.eren.doe.gov/femp/resources/waterguide.html. FEMP developed 10 Best Management Practices for the Federal sector as part of an effort to help the Federal sector become more water efficient. More information on the Federal BMPs and associated water reduction goals can be found on this Web site.
California Urban Water Conservation Council, www.cuwcc.org. The California Urban Water Conservation Council is a consensus-based partnership of agencies and organizations concerned with water supply and conservation of natural resources in California. The Council's membership consists of three groups -- water suppliers, advocacy groups and "other interested groups". The Council promotes the implementation of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for water conservation. Great resource.
American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA), www.arcsa-usa.org. This is the national association for rainwater harvesting.
Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), www.twdb.state.tx.us. Good information on regional planning, municipal, industrial and agricultural conservation, conservation public information materials, rainwater harvesting, desalinization.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), www.tceq.state.tx.us. Formerly the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission. Information on water rights, required water conservation and drought contingency plans.
Texas Water Wise Council, www.waterwisetexas.org. Organization that includes both the green industry (landscape contractors, irrigation contractors, landscape and nursery products) and the blue industry (water utilities, river authorities, groundwater districts). Promotes water wise landscaping. Information on best management practices (BMPs) for water wise landscaping, irrigation BMPs for homeowners, designers and consultants.
Texas American Water Works Association (TAWWA), www.tawwa.org. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) is the leading professional association for water and wastewater utilities in North America (www.awwa.org). The Texas Section is the second largest in the AWWA. This Web site lists state divisions and committees, workshop information and includes a section for the Conservation and Reuse Division.
San Antonio Water System , www.saws.org/conservation. Information about the San Antonio Water System Conservation.