Nov. 18 2016 02:39 PM

As landscape contractors, we know just how important water is in a landscape.

Every living thing needs water, and we provide our clients with a healthy, thriving landscape by ensuring a consistent supply of water.

However, when we hook up an irrigation system, the water that it distributes doesn’t get there by magic.

Water always comes from somewhere, usually the municipal supply, and although it is a renewable resource, it is finite. If the rains go away for long enough, any region can run dry, and when that starts to happen, water use can and will be restricted. Outdoor irrigation is often the first target for water suppliers looking to conserve, so when the drought comes, irrigation goes.

It can seem like local government doesn’t even look at how water is used until there’s a crisis, and then they have a kneejerk reaction.

Brent Mecham, industry development director for the Irrigation Association in Fairfax, Virginia, was living in Colorado in 2002, when a terrible drought hit. “It was really very severe, similar to what California’s been going through but it didn’t last as long,” he said. “The industry that got hurt the very most was the sod producers, because they effectively banned any new lawns.”

Under severe watering restrictions, lawns died and many property owners had to resort to covering bare dirt with straw to limit erosion. “That forever changed what the landscape of Colorado looks like,” Mecham said. “Now, the amount of turfgrass being installed is a lot less than it was in 2001.” The government response to a severe drought can plainly have permanent effects on the local market, so predicting that response is important.

This makes drought a very scary time for some landscape contractors. You’re going to be sweating bullets if the bulk of your company’s revenue comes from cutting grass, and the lawns have all gone dormant because it’s illegal to water them.

That’s not to say that drought is always a net minus for landscape contractors, particularly if they offer irrigation services. In fact, generally speaking, when the drought really starts to reach the public consciousness and affects property owners, these contractors are well positioned to help their clients.

In drought-prone areas of the country, the effect goes like clockwork. News pieces and official announcements about the drought remind consumers that they live in a water-scarce zone. It makes them recognize the need to chip in and conserve. Property owners are more willing to hear pitches for drip or low-flow irrigation systems, or swap out some of their landscapes for less thirsty plants.

But what happens when drought comes to a region that is usually abundant with water? That’s where things can get a little more interesting. Property owners are less likely to see drought as something that affects them personally. These effects are compounded when they haven’t experienced a serious drought before, and don’t know how bad it can get.

The real trouble is that local and state government officials often have a very poor picture (if they have any idea at all) of what our business is like. They don’t know about all the benefits of a living landscape. They don’t know that an acre of grass produces enough oxygen for 64 people.

They don’t know how lawns filter stormwater, improve air quality and keep erosion at bay.

Right now, there are two major droughts currently hitting typically ‘wet’ regions of the country; one is in New England, and the other is centered around the northern halves of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. Neither of these regions are particularly drought-prone; how these states and municipalities are responding to the ongoing issues is very telling.

In Connecticut, the town of Greenwich got down to 90 days of supply before the state Department of Public Health declared a water supply emergency. Aquarion Water Company supplies Greenwich, one of four Connecticut towns with water supply emergencies right now.

Aquarion’s spokesman Peter Fazekas says that the department’s been urging water conservation for months now. “We’ve been speaking steadily about conservation measures like retrofitting sprinkler systems with efficient sprinkler heads and replacing irrigation controllers,” he said.

Fazekas began that push in July, along with voluntary conservation measures, but they were largely ignored. It took instituting mandatory conservation measures in September to drop water usage from 32 million gallons per day to five million gallons per day. As is often the case in wet regions, the restrictions and public awareness came very late in the game, and now the town has an outright ban on outdoor watering.

“At this point, we’re working together with landscape companies to get the systems shut down, since no outdoor irrigation is allowed,” Fazekas said. “They’ve been helpful. Once a customer asks them to shut down their system, they immediately go out and take care of that.”

It’s a story that’s being repeated across the region, where the triggers for drought conditions (such as water levels in lakes) may not have been updated to account for population growth over the last 30 years.

One state over, the Massachusetts Water Resource Authority (MWRA) is the main water provider for Boston and the surrounding area. The special assistant to the executive director of the MWRA, Ria Convery, explained the problems it faces.

“Here, the drought of record was in the ’60s and lasted for eight years,”she said. “So a lot of people in government here aren’t used to this, and haven’t seen something like this before.”

The MWRA’s supply is fed from massive reservoirs in the center of the state and has more than four years of water available, so even though their entire area is in extreme drought, it hasn’t mandated any conservation measures. However, according to the state website, 70 Massachusetts towns have mandated watering restrictions, and an additional 98 towns allow only one day per week of watering—or less.

Convery and her agency aren’t blind to the problem. It’s sending water to other major cities like Worcester and Cambridge, to help them meet their needs, but it’s still a grim picture for lawns outside of Boston.

Down south, the weather is just as grim, but government response has been informed by more recent experience. Georgia, for instance, has the Water Stewardship Act of 2010, written in response to the drought of 2007-2008. The Act imposes an outdoor watering schedule statewide, preventing watering from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. whether there’s a drought or not. It also mandates that state agencies which deal with water collaborate to encourage voluntary water conservation.

This permanent measure has helped reduce water use in Atlanta by 15 percent since the last drought, even with a growing population. Chris Butts, executive director of the Georgia Green Industry Association in Epworth, says the new rules are much better than the old ones. “We used to go from no water restrictions at all to a complete outdoor water ban,” he said.

In no small part, that’s because the government started allowing industry input before adopting new laws. “Now, we’ve been able to work with the water providers and the state Environmental Protection Division to lessen the severity of those steps,” said Butts.

Alabama had a similar reaction, after a drought in 2000. “There’s been a lot of sensitivity towards the green industry since then,” said Tom Littlepage, head of the water management branch for the state’s Office of Water Resources. “In Birmingham, they looked back after the drought at the reduction and conservation measures they had taken that were across the board, and saw how they had adversely impacted the industry.”

The city changed its stages of drought response to reflect its new economic concerns, and it shows. The new five-stage system gives new plant installations 20 days of freedom from day-of-the-week restrictions for all but the final stage, and makes allowances for watering in fungicides, insecticides and herbicides. At Stage 3, which was recently imposed, property owners are subject to surcharges for excessive watering, which serves to forestall rate hikes, and encourages efficiency upgrades.

Drought response varies from state to state. Most of the time, it consists of state governments issuing declarations of drought conditions, and municipalities taking steps to respond.

That means the actual response is almost always on a local level. All the officials are really guaranteed to know is the water supply picture. That means they may not know how the water is getting used, or the ramifications of responding too slowly, or too suddenly, to drought.

I asked Mecham how he would recommend that we protect ourselves from future knee-jerk mandates. “In my view, the best solution is local,” he said. “The green industry and the water purveyors have to get together and figure out something that works. Then, everyone has to sacrifice, but by the same token, everybody recognizes the value we each bring.”

At the end of the day, we all just want reasonable compromises that don’t go from water wasting straight to total irrigation bans. There is so much the green industry can do to make irrigation measures more efficient. There’s drought-tolerant plant material, rain sensors, more efficient sprinkler heads and rainwater harvesting, just to name a few.

By giving local regulators some perspective on what we do, we can add another layer of protection to our clients’ landscapes.