It's Time to Start Reusing Our Water
The green industry gets blamed for wasting water, but most of this criticism is unfair. After all, the manufacturers within our industry invented high-efficiency sprinkler heads, smart controllers, low-volume irrigation systems, and rain- and soil-moisture sensors to address this very problem.
But when people still see sidewalks getting soaked by outdated sprinkler systems, and rivers of runoff overflowing gutters, what are they supposed to think? We need to work even harder to educate the public about the innovations we’ve come up with to conserve this precious resource.
Experts predict that, with climate change, the next 30 years or so are going to be drier ones. We need to prepare for this now, not only for our survival, but for the sake of our landscapes and our industry. In addition to that, surveys show that an increasing number of property owners want sustainable landscapes; ones that include less-thirsty native plants and more efficient irrigation systems.
Using just the technology we already have, it’s possible to move towards a future where zero potable water is used to sustain landscapes. And with continued innovation and competition, we’ll be adding new and even better tools to do that with.
Much of the water we use in our country literally gets flushed away. Not so in Israel; 85 percent of it is treated, reused, and doled out to irrigate crops via drip irrigation systems (another Israeli invention). Ten percent of it is used to fight forest fires and increase river flows, with only the remaining five percent being sent out to sea.
We need to learn from what Israel has to teach us. The world’s population continues to grow, but the amount of water needed to feed, clothe and hydrate all those people doesn’t. Meanwhile, decreased rainfall due to global warming, pollution, and sheer waste complicate the picture even more.
For decades, since the state of Israel’s founding, people have marveled at that country’s ability to ‘make the desert bloom.’ And now this small nation, only about the size of New Jersey, is teaching the rest of the world how they pull it off.
In Israel, virtually no potable water is used to grow food, yet there’s plenty of it, even enough for export. This was accomplished in several ways. Desalination is one of them. The country has many huge desalination plants that supply about half of its drinking water. But there’s something else they’re doing, too, that doesn’t get talked about as much. They reuse a great deal of their water.
In the U.S., reclaimed water is used mainly on golf courses. This needs to be expanded to other sites as much as possible. However, there are a couple of barriers to overcome before recycled water can become more widely adopted.
One is cost. Municipal water purveyors must lay a separate set of pipes (usually colored purple to identify that it is reclaimed water), to transport it. Even so, some municipalities in states like Florida, Colorado, Texas and California are offering recycled water to property owners.
Another is local codes and ordinances. You may need specialized training to be allowed to install such systems, or to connect them to a city’s reclaimed water supplies. Laws and codes are very strict regarding this, and they should be, in order to protect potable water supplies from any possible contamination.
The ‘yuck factor’ comes into play whenever the idea of turning recycled sewage into drinking water comes up. But that shouldn’t be an issue when recycled or reclaimed water is used strictly for landscapes.
At the height of California’s recent drought, Governor Jerry Brown encouraged greater use of rainwater recapture systems. Many cities gave out free rain barrels. Irrigation contractors who built simple to very large and complicated rainwater harvesting systems had more business than they could handle.
But when the water restrictions were lifted, the public’s demand for them decreased. Water use also went back up slightly.
We have to stop having such short memories. Instead of saying “Whew —glad that’s over!” we should use the respite to start getting ready for the next drought. The time to install these systems is before they’re needed!
Graywater isn’t the same as reclaimed water, which comes from sewage. Graywater is the effluent from residential (and institutional) washing machines, sinks and showers. In some places, kitchen water is included in that definition.
Groups such as the Greywater Alliance have done a great job in educating both the public and government officials about the benefits of using graywater instead of potable water to irrigate landscapes. Their activism has been instrumental in getting laws changed to permit it. In many cities of the drought-stricken West, graywater is the only type of irrigation allowed for sustaining plantings around government buildings.
Simple laundry-to-landscape systems can be built cheaply and easily.
More expensive and complex configurations, some including filtration, can also be built, depending on a client’s budget.
Graywater, unlike rainwater, must be distributed immediately to plant material. It can’t be stored for longer than 24 hours, because of the bacteria it contains.
Bioswales and Rain Gardens
Rain gardens are nothing more than depressions lined with layers of gravel and soil. Water, either from rain or runoff over impermeable surfaces such as driveways, percolates down through a series of soil or gravel layers beneath surface plantings. Sometimes, French drains are used to direct some of the water to overflow areas.
These structures not only irrigate the plantings at the top, but also reduce the amount of runoff. They allow stormwater to soak into the ground and recharge aquifers, as opposed to flowing into storm drains, washing the chemicals and other pollutants it contains into streams, lakes and even the oceans.
They’re simple and inexpensive to build. The question needs to be asked, why aren’t we incorporating them into more landscapes?
Much of the water we waste is the result of urbanization. Rain and irrigation water run off impervious surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt driveways, patios and walkways. These new type of pavers allow us to keep building beautiful, functional outdoor living areas and at the same time, do something good for the environment .
Permeable or pervious pavers are typically made of cast concrete. The paving stones themselves aren’t porous; it’s the gravel they’re set in that makes them so. Water runs down into the gravel between each stone and replenishes groundwater.
But it doesn’t have to go straight into the ground. That water can be waylaid and captured before it ever reaches the water table. Belowgrade storage tanks can be installed under permeable paving systems. The water flows through the gravel and into the tanks, where it’s collected for reuse.
Selling these systems to your customers—both commercial and residential—is often a matter of education. Once you tell them how much money they can save as a result of installing such measures, their interest perks up, especially when local governments or water agencies offer cash incentives for doing so. Such efforts are ramped up during times of drought.
Some environmentally-conscious property owners are already on board with ideas like this. Developers needing or wanting to collect LEED points for new construction projects are open to incorporating water reuse or recapturing measures, more so when newly passed codes require them.
By installing systems that allow the reuse of water, we demonstrate that our industry is in the forefront of conservation efforts, because it is. We can show everyone that we’re in the business of sustaining and beautifying environments in ever-more responsible ways.