Can Your Waterscape Business Survive the Drought?

There’s something about flowing water that we humans crave. It’s hard to look at a fountain, a babbling brook or peaceful pond and not feel more relaxed. Having a calm, scenic oasis in one’s very own backyard can provide a much-needed reprieve from the stress of everyday urban life.

Landscape contractors who build waterscapes bring a touch of magic —and added value—to people’s homes.

But what happens when the water supply dries up—as it has during this summer’s historic drought? Some 66 percent of the lower 48 states—including most of the Midwest and some of the West—is experiencing record high temperatures combined with a severe lack of rainfall. More than half of the South is in a state of ‘exceptional’ drought. As if that weren’t bad enough, add the recession to it for a staggering one-two punch that can knock a business right out.

“Business started to slow down a few years ago, with the onset of the drought and the slowdown of the economy,” confirms Rocke Huntington, owner of The Pond Dragon, Lincoln, Nebraska. “It’s down dramatically compared to 2005 or 2006.”

So, how can a landscape company in a parched state, one that normally does a considerable amount of waterscape business, cope with all this?

Let’s consider Arizona. The desert is in a constant state of drought. People living in such a hot, arid environment crave the sight and feel of water even more.

Paul Holdeman, owner of The Pond Gnome, Phoenix, Arizona, agrees. He’s been in the landscape industry for twenty years, concentrating exclusively on waterscape construction for the past thirteen. “Ponds, swimming pools, and swimming pools with water features attached are extremely popular around here,” says Holdeman.

One would think that water would be an extremely scarce—and expensive—commodity there, especially with the drought. “Whether or not we have a water shortage in Arizona is a subject of great debate here,” says Holdeman. And water, at least in the Phoenix area, is cheap, according to Holdeman.

Even so, customers’ perception affects their openness to new waterscape projects. Says Holdeman:

“Customers want water in their yard but are afraid of using it.” But what if those people—now surrounded by dead, brown lawns—were to discover that a water feature is not out of the question? That, in fact, it may be far less thirsty than a lawn?

To change customer perception, a contractor may have to do some myth-busting. To do that, you have to know exactly what the rationing situation is in your area.

“Check your local ordinances,” suggests Dave Jones, owner of The Pond Professional in Woodstock, Georgia, a suburb of Atlanta. That’s just what he did. He called the state capitol to find out what water restrictions actually applied to his business. “When we were under a ‘Level Four’ drought here in Atlanta—which is almost the most extreme level we could have—you could still build a living water feature as long as you didn’t use 100,000 gallons in the first 30 days,” says Jones. “Most residential water features use only 1,000 to 3,000 gallons.”

Kevin James owns KJ’s Green Thumb and Landscape in Cedar Rapids, Iowa—smack in the middle of drought country. He finds that some customers are still open to building waterscapes, but you have to pitch it just right. “You don’t want to push ‘em. Once you start pushing, they can turn off completely,” he says. He’s had some success by offering incentives such as free maintenance for a year—but it’s still a tough sell.

As a one-man operation, James is generally busy, but the drought has definitely affected business. “When we had that real long hot spell, my phone just stopped ringing,” says James. “People didn’t want anything to do with water, because they thought there might be a water ban.”

Drought-discouraged customers may find a pondless waterfall more appealing. Michael Harding, who owns Complete Landscaping Systems in Wichita, Kansas, has found that to be true. “Ponds mean maintenance, and people are scared away by that,” added Harding. “With the drought, they evaporate faster and require more water,” he said, and his customers don’t like that, either. But the advantages of going pondless does appeal to his clients. “People want the noise of water, but not the hard work of keeping fish alive,” says Harding.

Huntington has also found pondless more popular in the last few years. “I have a lot of clients who travel, and they like being able to turn the water feature on and off,” said Huntington.

Zak Grothe works at The Good Earth Garden Center, a full-service landscape service that includes a retail store. The Little Rock, Arkansas company has found good money in big rocks. “We’ve tried to be innovative,” says Grothe. “We created an economical pondless water feature by taking six-foot boulders and coring out a four-inch hole in the center,” he says. “The water bubbles up out of the rock. You still get the sound and beauty of the water, but at lower cost,” he explains. “The boulders really make a statement, but in a simpler package.”

Jones says that public perception is perhaps the biggest obstacle a professional contractor may face during a drought condition. “People think they can’t do anything with a pond right now, so they don’t bother to ask,” says Jones.

If they had asked, Jones could have told them some very interesting facts. For instance: “There’s a big difference between a sterile fountain or waterfall and a pond,” says Jones. “When you get into ponds, you’re dealing with something that supports life,” Jones said. “The (water authorities) can’t just tell you to shut it off.”

Your customers may also believe that water features waste water. “Water features don’t waste water, they re-circulate water,” says Jones. But doesn’t that water evaporate? “Of course,” says Jones. “But in ponds, the evaporation is one-seventh to one-tenth that of an irrigated lawn.” Jones adds, “Irrigating an acre and a half of lawn, you’re using 10,000 gallons a day, even with efficient misters.” Replacing a lawn area with a water feature actually saves water.

Huntington did a study in 2007 that confirmed this. He put water meters on roughly the same square footage of irrigated turf and a pond and measured their water usage for a week. Both were in baking sun with no shade. At weeks’ end, the pond had used 50 gallons less water than the turf.

If your business is going to survive the drought, educating your customer is crucial. Jones agrees: “I missed a big opportunity during the drought of 2007-’08, but I’ve learned from my mistakes,” he said. “I should have sent out press releases and gone on local talk radio to talk about what people could and could not do during the drought,” he said.

One thing he did do during that time, and continues to do, is keep in touch with all his customers through an electronic newsletter. This was how he informed his customers that they could still build a water feature during a Level Four drought.

You also need to educate yourself—about your customers and their concerns. “I tell my “greenies” (eco-conscious customers) that if they want to be friendly to local birds and wildlife and have them be part of their habitat, they need to have a permanent and sustainable water source available,” says Holdeman. A water feature can be just that.

Ponds are eco-friendly in other ways, too. A 2008 Iowa State University study found that constructed ponds and lakes around the world could absorb as much carbon as the world’s oceans. Pitch that fact to your “greenies.”

Don’t forget about the other parts of your business when there is a slowdown in waterscape construction. “Thank goodness we had a strong service and maintenance business, because that’s all that kept us alive during the last drought,” said Jones.

Paul Holdeman has another suggestion: “I use stormwater harvesting as a selling feature,” he says. “In the last two or three years it’s become very popular to harvest rainwater off the roof and use that water to replenish a living stream or pond,” says Holdeman. “That’s much better than allowing it to run off into storm drains.”

He advises fellow contractors in other states to follow suit. “I’d definitely talk about rainwater recirculation as part of an overall project,” said Holdeman. “I would make it my business to learn all I could about stormwater harvesting and how to incorporate it into water features.”

Something else you can do is go back to your old waterscape customers and show them how some slight alteration in the existing water feature may reduce the amount of water needed to keep it flowing.

Repair and maintenance business may come to you because of the drought. Huntington discovered that water features he’d built ten years ago that had never leaked, suddenly did. “Here in Nebraska, we have clay soil. When that dries out, it shrinks. You get drops in the ground, and now your lining is below water level,” he said.

Drought brings with it heightened fire danger. And that could be a selling point: “In areas where they have wildfires, you may get permission to build a water feature if the water in it can be accessed by firefighters,” Jones said. He added: “What better way to protect a customer’s valuable home than with a living moat?” The heartland drought may drag on, but it doesn’t have to dry up your waterscape business. Educate your customers. Employ some of the techniques that these landscape company owners have used successfully. Do these things, and you may find yourself in your own green oasis of dollars.