Turn Down The Tap

Kentucky is famous for a few things--among them its bluegrass lawns.

What you may not know is that while bluegrass is native to practically all of Europe, northern Asia and the mountains of Algeria and Morocco, it is not native to North America.

Apparently, early colonists to North Carolina, Tennessee and, of course, Kentucky brought grass seed in mixtures with other grasses that later became known as Kentucky bluegrass.

Bluegrass is unique because it can be lush, growing from 18 to 24 inches, and, at least during the spring and summer, the shoots are very upright. To grow to these heights, bluegrass also demands a tremendous amount of water, which is becoming a problem.

Today, in many areas of Kentucky, commercial and residential property owners have been literally yanking out the prized bluegrass lawns and replacing them with more native turf, as well as poppies and bellflowers.

These may not be as lush, but they do add much more color to lawns. Moreover, the main reason owners are doing this is to conserve the most precious resource--water.

Perhaps unknowingly, these property owners are actually part of a movement called xeriscaping, which is growing throughout the country.

Understanding Xeriscaping

From the Greek word for dry, xeriscaping essentially refers to landscaping that uses less water. The term was coined in 1981 by Nancy Leavitt, an environmental planner with the Denver Water Department, and resulted from studies that indicated more than 50 percent of public utility water was being used for landscaping in certain areas of the city and state.

For many years, xeriscaping received little attention. One reason was that, 30 years ago, people even in drought-ridden sections of the United States believed water shortages were temporary problems. The attitude was that a heavy downpour or two would make everything fine again.

However, more and more people, including public officials, believe water shortages today are long-term problems--even in areas of the country blessed with an ample amount of rainfall.

Additionally, many facility managers believed xeriscaping referred to rock- and cactus-type gardens, similar to what one would see in a desert. This is not the case at all. Instead, one aspect of xeriscaping refers to grouping plants together with similar moisture needs. This uses water more responsibly, and eliminates over-wetting and wasteful practices.

However, xeriscaping received a big push in the 1990s when a major Las Vegas hotel converted acres of lush lawns and vegetation--which were more suitable to areas of the country like New England and Washington State, but certainly not dry Nevada--to more native plants that demand considerably less water.

Not only has water consumption dropped by two-thirds, but so has the cost of water fed to the hotel property.

The Xeriscaping Seven Steps

Originally, xeriscaping involved simply replacing heavy water-consuming vegetation, such as bluegrass lawns, with less water-demanding plants native to a region. However, as the concept has grown in interest, it has also grown structurally.

Those who are considering this program should be aware of the following seven steps to create a xeriscape landscape or garden:

1. Develop a master plan. It involves several items, but most importantly it ensures that water-loving plants are separated from drought-tolerant vegetation, so that water is used more wisely.

2. Conduct a soil analysis. Testing kits are available from a variety of sources that can analyze the nutrient status of soil. These kits can detect pH, salinity, organic content, etc. In some cases, the soil’s condition may need to be improved or adjusted prior to planting.

3. Select plants carefully. Without question, xeriscaping involves the use of native or less water-demanding vegetation.

4. Consider turf alternatives. If a lawn or vegetation is not necessary in certain areas of a facility, look for alternative uses of the land--such as a play area that needs only sand.

5. Use mulch. Covering areas with mulch minimizes evaporation, reduces weed growth, and can slow erosion. It also helps “feed” the vegetation.*

6. Create planting zones. As referenced, this involves grouping plants according to their water needs.

7. Provide appropriate maintenance. Obviously, the way the xeriscape landscape is maintained, especially irrigated, will now change dramatically. Be sure that maintenance personnel understand the water demands and other needs of the new vegetation.

A key component of xeriscaping, which should be included in the master plan, is to take note of how water flows through a property. This will help identify drainage and possible soil-erosion areas. It also helps designate where water-loving plants may be planted and areas where they should be avoided.

How Else to Conserve Water

Experts in cleaning compare a “green” program to the spokes in an old carriage wheel--the wheel is only as strong as the weakest spoke. The same holds true when it comes to water conservation. We must ensure that all areas of the facility are contributing to water-conserving efforts, not just the landscaping.

Most landscaped facilities use a large amount of water to irrigate vegetation. However, there is a variety of steps parks and recreation managers can take to reduce water consumption in the second-most water-demanding area of a facility: restrooms.

If you have not checked when the toilets, sinks, and urinals were installed, it is time to do so. Any of these restroom fixtures that were installed before 1992 do not meet current water-consuming regulations. And for that matter, any units installed before 2005 also are most likely using far too much water.

When replacing these older systems, put water conservation at the top of your list of considerations, and view it as a long-term investment.

Growing in popularity now are dual-flush toilets that use only a small amount of water to remove liquid waste and slightly more to remove solid waste. In dealing with urinals, many public facilities, including stadiums, sports centers and recreational establishments are installing no-water or waterless urinals.

One reason for this is cost. A waterless urinal costs far less to purchase and install than a conventional system. Additionally, the savings of up to 40,000 gallons of water per year per urinal simply cannot be beat.

Conserving water is an important issue, and continues to change the way managers and owners operate their facilities.

Many facilities have enjoyed Kentucky bluegrass-type landscaping for many years, and although many people would not readily identify Kentucky as a water-starved area--like Arizona, Nevada and California--this state and others are now on alert.

Many eastern localities have reservoir capacities that are becoming inadequate for the number of people living there. Although these areas may have years when water is plentiful, a dry year can wreak havoc on a state’s supply, citizens and businesses.

This is why all states and communities must look for ways to use water wisely and conserve where possible. Xeriscaping is a major step in that direction, but it should not stop there. Analyze every area of your facility that uses water, especially the restrooms, and see what steps can be taken to protect this natural resource.

A frequent speaker and author on water-conservation issues, Klaus Reichardt is founder and CEO of Waterless Co. Inc., in Vista, Calif. He is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council since 1999 and the University of California-Santa Barbara EcoEntrepreneur Advisory Board. He may be reached at Klaus@waterless.com.

* Mulch refers to any type of material that is spread or laid over the surface of the soil as a covering.

Bryan BuchkoComment