During World War II, Mary Ann Dickinson’s father served in the Army—he was an American G.I., who met a German girl, married her and brought her back to the United States. From that union came Mary Ann. Unfortunately, her parents divorced when she was about two years old. Her mother remarried, settling in a Detroit, Michigan suburb. It was there where Dickinson spent her junior high and high school years.
She attended the University of Connecticut, where she got her degree in Environmental Planning—a new field back then. While still in college, Dickinson went to work for a small environmental nonprofit organization that was lobbying to create a Department of Environmental Protection at the state level.
When it was finally formed, her boss at the small nonprofit was appointed its first commissioner; the entire organization went with him. “That’s when my career really started, when I was in environmental resource management,” said Dickinson. “I spent my next 18 years working for the state government as an environmental specialist.”
“Water is an environmental resource, and I was always working around water,” she said. So in 1989, Dickinson went to work for the South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, which serves about 500,000 people.
At that time, Connecticut was experiencing a drought. The state had passed legislation requiring that any utility serving more than 10,000 people develop a water conservation program that had to be approved by the Department of Health Services. “There I was, working for a water utility, and seeing the water-utility community in a near panic about this water-conservation requirement was surprising,” said Dickinson. “Nobody wanted to do it.”
Her boss at the Regional Water Authority said, “We’re assigning you to water conservation because this law was just passed.” Dickinson replied that she didn’t know anything about water conservation. Her boss said, “Well, no one else here does, and no one else wants it. You’re stuck with it, because you’re our government affairs person and thus drew the short straw. It can’t be that hard; just go to a conference.” Dickinson laughs, “I’m quoting him literally. That’s how I ended up in water conservation and it slowly took over my life.”
“In 1990, we came up with a program that 63 water utilities participated in,” she continued. “The state approved the water-conservation program, and it was launched on Earth Day of that year.” Dickinson recalls then that there were other states facing drought conditions, but they weren’t coordinating between communities; “each was doing their own thing.”
It was 1990, and California was also in a drought. An official from the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) in Los Angeles saw news reports of what they were doing in Connecticut. The district offered her a job: “We have a big budget, come out here and do what you did in Connecticut, but do it here,” she was told. Dickinson was going through a divorce at the time and thought that moving 3,000 miles away would give her a new outlook on life. So in 1992, she moved to Los Angeles.
Water conservation doesn’t have the detailed documentation of most energy-efficiency programs because it’s never been funded at that level. It doesn’t have the respect in terms of the evaluation methods, because no one’s ever prepared the necessary protocols, as they’ve done in energy efficiency. “I was just astounded that there was so much that needed to happen, and I kind of got into it,” she said.
At one point, the MWD said to her, ‘Well, you know, the California Urban Water Conservation Council is looking to hire an executive director.
They’ve received a grant from the Bureau of Reclamations to staff up. So they asked if we would lend you to them to start up a program.”
The MWD told her that they would lend her to Sacramento for a couple of years, and when she finished and came back, her regular job would be waiting for her. The two years turned and Florida were having water scarcity issues, and there was nobody local with answers. Officials in these states found out online about the California Urban Water Conservation Council, and started calling. A huge influx of calls from all over the country began flooding the phones.
The California Urban Water Conservation Council board felt that it could not support the entire country, and suggested that, with all those calls coming in, someone should get a grant and create an organization. “With the help of others, we did the research on what the stakeholders wanted; if they thought that there was a need for such an organization; the name they wanted for it, and the things they wanted this organization to do,” said Dickinson.
“We filed the report with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and Ben Grumbles, administrative assistant for water at the EPA, then asked when we were going to create the organization,” she said. In 2006, the Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) was incorporated; in September 2007, operations were opened in Chicago.
In the almost ten years that AWE has been around, it has worked closely with builders and plumbing manufacturers as well as the irrigation industry. Dickinson believes that a true partnership between the irrigation industry and AWE can be an important tool in our tool kit.
“We have a new frontier ahead of us regarding landscape, and what we really need to do is develop some creative solutions that are cost-effective and affordable, but that save water and manage the landscape better than we’ve been able to do,” said Dickinson. “We’re not anti-turf, particularly when drought-tolerant turf might end up being a better substitute than other plant material. The main point is, we’re pro-efficiency; whichever way is best.”
It is important that our entire landscape industry join AWE and develop partnerships that will help property owners maintain suitable, pleasant-to-view, but efficient landscapes, keep contractors busy cutting turf and maintaining properties, and keep manufacturers busy developing the most innovative irrigation technology.
Even after all these years, Mary Ann Dickinson still has the passion as well as the drive. She’s a true champion of smart landscaping.