June 15 2015 02:59 PM
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The Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, chronicled in Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” immortalized the devastating effects that drought—combined with a lack of knowledge about soil conservation—had on our nation. We’ve learned a lot since then; yet, droughts in the late 1980s are estimated to have cost the United States between $80 billion and almost $120 billion. (That’s billion with a ‘B’.) Water shortages from that time are considered the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history.

Undoubtedly, the future holds more challenges. A new study from researchers at NASA predicts ‘mega-droughts’ that will exceed in length and severity any we have experienced in the past 1,000 years. Based on population growth rates alone, some studies predict that by 2050, half of the world’s population will be living in areas experiencing severe water stress.

So what do we do now? Currently, there are moderate to severe drought conditions in the Southwest and Western regions of the United States, while other states endure varying levels of water shortages. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor map, at least 22 states are in some form of drought.

Recently, California’s Governor Jerry Brown mandated a 25 percent cut in water usage throughout the state. Less than a week later, the American Canyon City Council adopted a new ordinance banning front lawns on new homes. A great deal of controversy has ensued, but it underscores the severity of the situation.

So how do we get from here to there? “I hope that what’s happening in California, Oregon, Nevada, Texas and parts of Oklahoma is an eye-opener for everybody in the nation,” said Jim Novak of Turf Grass Producers International. Novak would like to see everyone re-evaluate their relationship with this precious resource.

Meanwhile, the growing need for water conservation brings with it opportunities for landscape architects and builders to offer a new and truly valid service: designs that are environmentally responsible. Can we design landscapes that are eyeappealing, enjoyable and eco-green?

We most certainly can, and we can do it without creating desert landscapes of crushed rock, or concrete interspersed with a few drought-tolerant plants.

But some experts believe that planting for your specific climate may require seriously re-evaluating your expectations. Eva Knoppel, founder of Garden of Eva Landscape Design Group in Los Angeles, California, believes that residents of states with more arid climates—and specifically the chaparral climate of her own state—have ill-conceived conceptions of what their environment should look like.

She describes how “lawns were brought in to make a yard look like an English garden, but they don’t belong in our climate, which is that of the Mediterranean. You don’t have lawns in Italy and France, but people decided it was a good thing here. That definitely has to change.”

In order to offer her clients ecologically-sound landscapes, Knoppel brings in “a mix of Mediterranean and native plants, because many natives only bloom for a month or so, and people need to enjoy their garden more than just briefly while certain plants look good.”

However, clients may be wary of their yards or commercial properties looking overgrown, weedy, or just full of shrubs. Neil Diboll, president of Prairie Nursery located in Westfield, Wisconsin, explains, “Some people think native landscapes are messy. They want everything buzzcut, with a golf course look, and that’s what they’re going to keep doing until they run out of water, or run out of money.”

But running out of water really isn’t an option, is it? Our world is changing, and adapting to these changes requires responsible water use.

Regardless of whether you live in a drought-prone state or not, both Diboll and Knoppel stress the importance of working with your environment, in terms of climate and soil.

As Diboll illustrates, “Look at a Tucson garden. People use cacti, palms that are drought-resistant, native and non-native. That garden is drastically different from the prairie garden that I would make here in Wisconsin, which is drastically different from a grass garden I would make in Napa Valley.”

What about the grass lawns that we love? Are they just ill-conceived aesthetic preferences or might they serve a purpose? True, every home and/or office park doesn’t require one; however, turf removes carbon dioxide from the air we breathe and generates oxygen, traps and stores rainwater, and cools the environment and nearby structures through evapotranspiration. If used intelligently, with consideration of a region’s climate, turf can be a responsible part of a landscape.

“My big concern about the removal of this kind of vegetation is the heat island effect that’s going to be created, and the soil erosion that is going to result,” said Novak. Remember the Dust Bowl? It is exactly because we have learned so much since the 1930s that a simple response toward water conservation, like banning lawns, is nonsensical.

Many people plant the wrong grass species for their area’s climate. There are also new grass varieties, some requiring 50 percent less water than traditional ones, and more are currently in development. Many of these new species are not only drought-tolerant, but discourage weeds, requiring fewer pesticides and fertilizer.

For example, a new drought-tolerant grass called Zion Zoisa, developed in Poteet, Texas, will be used for the golf course in the 2016 Olympics. This new hybrid can endure extreme conditions, as well as being drought-tolerant. Diboll, in conjunction with the O.J. Noer Turfgrass Research and Education Facility in Verona, Wisconsin, evaluated different blends, varieties and proportions of Fineleaf Fescue to arrive at a proprietary blend that requires little-to-no fertilizer, minimal irrigation, has properties that retard the growth of other plants and weeds, and is extremely slow growing, requiring very little maintenance.

Regardless of what kind of landscape you install, it’s going to require water. However, it does not necessarily have to be potable water. We can get water for our landscapes from a number of sources.

For example, we can begin to harvest rainwater and store it in containers, either above-ground or below. We can begin to use and store graywater. We can use effluent water that has been recycled. With treatment, we can even use brackish water.

Water experts everywhere are advocating the process of water harvesting—capturing, diverting and storing non-potable, or ‘reclaimed’ water for landscape irrigation and a variety of other uses. For years, some conscientious individuals have embraced smart water use by integrating small-scale water harvesting systems, like rain barrels, into their landscapes.

Successful water reuse systems can meet up to 50 percent of a property’s water needs by supplying water for landscaping. Recycling graywater saves fresh potable water for other uses, reduces the volume of wastewater going to septic systems and wastewater treatment plants, and increases infrastructure capacity for new users. The benefits of water reuse systems go beyond water conservation.

“This is not a new idea, but it’s finally catching on,” explains Novak.

“Now, because of technological advances and the growing need to conserve potable water, landscape architects and contractors are finding that water harvesting is an increasingly popular choice for larger applications like commercial sites, schools, apartment complexes and parks.”

Harvesting rainwater, stormwater, cooling system condensate and graywater are smart and relatively painless practices that can conserve significant amounts of fresh water for drinking. Using these unconventional sources of water responsibly, while also incorporating today’s water-efficient irrigation technology, is the best way to continue maintaining beautiful, healthy landscapes with little impact on the world’s fresh water supply.

Landscape architects will not only need to understand water harvesting, but they will also need to learn how this process affects the ultimate design of a site’s irrigation system. Professionals who can successfully balance the considerations of how the design of a site’s irrigation system will affect the site’s turf, trees and plants, will be better poised to provide well-rounded solutions that lead to satisfied clients. Subsequently, it will help them develop enviable project portfolios that can lead to additional business and increased revenue.

There are a lot of options for getting from here to there, from business as usual to incorporating thoughtful conservation measures. Changes can be big, small or something in-between—from collecting rainwater in barrels and using it for irrigation to incorporating water reuse systems into new or existing structures, to working with foliage carefully selected for the climate or using new plant species. These strategies can all work together and are just some of the options; there are more out there, and even more on their way.