Sept. 15 2016 11:50 AM
Wehaa just map

Drought doesn’t happen everywhere at once, but it happens everywhere, eventually. Right now, the drought in the western states is getting a lot of attention, but it’s not the only region that is suffering.

The national drought picture at the time of this writing, mid-July 2016, is somewhat better than it was last year at this same time. You can see a graphic depiction of that by looking at the U.S. Drought Monitor map.

Droughts that are designated as long-term cover all of California, half of Nevada, all of Arizona and western New Mexico, with central Utah taking a bit of a beating. California looks better than it did last year, but there are still lots of dark brown and red areas, particularly around the Central Valley.

Parts of eastern Wyoming and western South Dakota are in extreme drought, as are parts of northern Alabama and Georgia. In the Northeast, western New York and a big swath of Massachusetts are suffering severe drought.

The Midwest isn’t exempt, either. Below-average precipitation was reported in much of Missouri, Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Drought conditions improved in Iowa, but expanded in Ohio.

An “up” side?

Green industry businesses can be adversely affected by drought; some are even forced out of business entirely. Certainly, when people let their lawns die, there’s no need for someone to come mow or fertilize it.

A few clever contractors, however, not only make it through droughts, they profit from them by using them as a sales tool. One of those contractors is Tony DiMauro, CLIA, owner and president of Sunset Landscape Services, Inc., in Dallas, Texas.

“We took advantage of the situation,” he said. “We created a video presentation to educate our management companies and HOAs on how pressure-regulated heads and drip systems operate. We also had a section in there on drought-tolerant landscapes.”

“We closed the deals with almost every property we approached, and our numbers were up substantially.”

So, it’s not all bad news. “The drought emergency did more to stimulate interest in, and use of, drip irrigation products than all of the sales and marketing efforts of the past decade,” said Mike Baron, national specifications manager at The Toro Company’s irrigation division.

The crisis provided the sales trigger that drip needed. People who didn’t understand drip, or were wary of it, began to see it as the answer to the drought. “All of a sudden, because of the rebates, some of the larger facilities—such as corporate campuses or school districts—really embraced the conversion to drip,” said Baron. “So, we had this rapid adoption.”

The drought in the west has also been a boon for landscape and irrigation contractors who responded by learning to install rainwater recapture and graywater systems.

Many of them reported that they had more business than they could handle.

Doesn’t drought usually hurt business? “You’d think so,” said Sandra Giarde, executive director of the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA). “But that’s not true.”

“During the economic downturn, everyone clutched their wallets. People who were fortunate enough to still be employed, and who still owned their property, were putting off renovating or installing new landscapes. This created an almost perfect storm for people in the landscape contracting profession.”

“About the time we started to come out of the economic downturn, we were faced with the drought. You’d think that would have put a damper on the landscape business, but it didn’t,” said Giarde.

CLCA conducted a survey in 2015, asking how the drought had impacted its members’ businesses. More than 65 percent said they had moderately to significantly more business because of the drought, and predicted that the trend would continue.

“The benefits we get from grass, trees and large shrubs—the cooling effect, the carbon sequestration, all the functional elements of landscapes—are valuable,” said Brent Q. Mecham, industry development director for the Irrigation Association.

“Ripping out lawns is a short-term solution,” he said, referring to the turf replacement programs that have cropped up in response to the drought. With the concern about global warming, should we really be doing something that makes it worse?

And actually, it doesn’t really work. A study by the University of California, Riverside Extension, showed that two-thirds of the water savings realized by converting from turf to a drought-tolerant landscape came not from the conversion itself, but from fixing the existing sprinkler system.

We already have a great many tools for irrigating more efficiently. Burgeoning electronic technology has given us smart controllers, soilmoisture and rain sensors, and flow monitors. Rotating nozzles and precision spray heads have existed for some time, and they also greatly cut precipitation rates.

If all the smart people in the green industry, the government, and all the stakeholders that are affected by drought were to come together, long-term solutions can and will be found.