|By DENNE GOLDSTEIN|
Bennett was born in Michigan, but he grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where his dad was stationed as an Air Force pilot during the Vietnam war.
Upon graduation from high school, he enrolled at New Mexico State University (NMSU) in Las Cruces. “I figured that being a wildlife biologist would be a great way to make a career out of my love for the outdoors.”
Bennett found student employment at the college’s plant pathology lab. “In my senior year of wildlife sciences, I realized my job prospects after graduation were pretty bleak,” he said. The plant pathology professor he worked for encouraged him to switch majors and Bennett wound up getting a bachelor’s degree in agricultural pest management.
Bennett took a job working on a maintenance crew for a landscape company one summer. “As I look back now, we were part of the water problem,” he said. “Nobody taught us about water use.” Another summer, he got a job installing irrigation systems. “This was the routine: you were put to work digging ditches,” said Bennett. “If you could stick it out, eventually you got to lay the pipe and then install the heads, etc.” He spent a summer in Idaho working on a grasshopper control study for the United States Department of Agriculture. Another job he had was in the pest control business. “I sprayed bugs,” he said.
After graduating in 1986, he hired on with the Cooperative Extension Service, New Mexico State University in Carlsbad as a horticulturist. His work involved urban horticulture, and he faced a number of diverse problems.
He began developing programs such as teaching Xeriscape, holding irrigation installation workshops, and developed a newsletter on water conservation. Little did Bennett realize that he was charting his career path. He also continued with his studies, and in 1992 he received a master’s degree in business and personnel management.
While still with the extension service, he was offered a position in Farmington, New Mexico, in 1990, working with kids in the 4H youth program. He spent three years there. Then a friend told him of a job in Los Alamos, New Mexico. They wanted someone with experience in 4H as well as urban horticulture. The requirements fit him to a T, and he was hired. While there he developed an active Master Gardener program.
In 1995, the city of Albuquerque was looking for a person with the experience Bennett had gained, for the position of irrigation conservation manager. One of his responsibilities was to create a water waste enforcement program. In essence, he became the Chief of Water Police. Customers would receive violation notices and turn them over to their landscape contractors and gardeners; this created a unique educational opportunity.
Bennett learned how to interface with landscape contractors. He knew some of their problems from his past experience and he worked with them to correct these problems, sharing his knowledge of proper watering, while still maintaining a beautiful landscape. He also learned how utilities operate and some of the problems they face. Bennett wanted to learn it all. Once he understood the problem, he looked at how it could be corrected, so everyone could peacefully coexist.
Along the way, he took many courses and became a Certified IA Auditor. He insisted his staff get the same credentials. He built strong relationships with contractors in the green industry. He became active with the local chapter of the Irrigation Association.
When Albuquerque began to give rebates to replace turf with water efficient landscaping, Bennett helped develop a plan so that when turf was removed, it would be replaced with drought-tolerant plants. All of a sudden, some contractors began to realize that there was money in water. Water conservation, that is.
Five years later, a friend told Bennett of a posting for the position of conservation manager for the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Bennett applied, and in 2000, he accepted the position and moved his wife and two children to the Las Vegas, Nevada area.
It was all coming together for Bennett. All his years of learning and implementing water conservation were now coming into play. The challenges ahead were Herculean. In a desert environment, he needed to find ways to control the abuse of watering in the landscape.
Bennett took southern Nevada’s landscape rebate program and overhauled it, making it more appealing to customers and simpler to administer. The program now serves over 10,000 properties annually and is the largest incentive program in the nation, with a budget of nearly $48 million per year. “Our partnership with the landscape and irrigation industry has been critical to our success,” he said.
One of the problems southern Nevada faced was that while he was implementing this program, developers were still creating non-functional turf areas. Bennett was instrumental in developing codes to help assure that new construction in the Las Vegas region was built to higher standards of water efficiency.
Today, Las Vegas is considered to have one of the most effective and progressive water efficiency programs in the nation, including the largest program for water-efficient new homes. Circle 223 on Reader Response Card Bennett is very proud of his agency’s WaterSmart Contractor Program, which trains landscape contractors in effective water management and allows them to use the Water Smart logo in their marketing.
Bennett’s most recent project is to bring all the disciplines where water is involved, along with the utilities that serve their communities, together and develop a forum to accelerate the advancement of water efficiency information and technology. With this in mind, WaterSmart Innovations was developed and its first conference and trade show was held…where else...but in Las Vegas?
For someone who was looking to get away with doing as little as he could, and didn’t know what he wanted to be when he grew up, Doug Bennett is gaining a national reputation as an innovator of water conservation.