Making Every Drop Count

For the developer or contractor looking into a crystal ball and hoping for longevity, it all boils down to three options:

Option #1: We continue to develop residential communities as we’ve done all along, with the same types of turf, the same irrigation systems, the same landscaping. Except that water availability isn’t the same, and tight restrictions on landscape water usage could result in vast neighborhoods with brown lawns and wilted shrubbery.

Option #2: We allow extended drought conditions and community water shortages to influence public policy to the point that, ten years hence, it could be very possible to stroll into a new subdivision and see carpets of artificial turf broken up by an occasional statue or aesthetic stone.

Option #3: Developers, homeowners and the green industry work together creatively, taking the reins and becoming proactive, developing turf and landscape systems that thrive on smaller amounts of water, and applying technology under the assumption that a cup of wasted water is a cup too much.

Going with the flow
Newhall Land is one example of a corporation shouldering the task of water conservation. One of the most prominent feathers in this developer’s cap to date is the community of Valencia, situated in California’s Santa Clarita Valley. Since the adoption of the Valencia Master Plan in 1965, the town — located approximately 30 miles north of downtown Los Angeles — has come to represent a successfully planned community for its 48,000 residents. Via smart planning, the town has evolved into a bright example of what can be. It’s new. It’s beautiful. It’s efficient.

Much of Valencia’s water conservation success can be attributed to Newhall’s ability to adapt and thrive whenever the latest research brings new water efficiency to light.

Newhall Land’s Vice President of Landscape Operations, Kriss Keogh, explains how the company’s approach to irrigation and landscaping has evolved over the past couple of decades: in the early 1980s, the accepted practice was hydroseeding, which required considerable water usage. In the mid-1980s, the technique was mass plantings of shrubs with hydroseeded nurse crops, which used less water than hydroseeding exclusively, but still expended large quantities. By the end of that decade, Newhall was using jute mesh over 80 percent of landscaped slopes, in conjunction with overhead irrigation on the planted slopes.
About the same time, the company made a discovery that would define their move into the new millennium. Says Keogh, “We collaborated with HRP Landesign, a Southern California landscape architectural firm that designed much of Valencia’s greenbelts, to develop a test plot. This plot helps determine the types of plant materials, the types of planting methods, as well as the irrigation techniques that were best suited for the future.” What Newhall found is that, by using point irrigation (bubbler or drip), plant material was growing one-third faster than with overhead. Simultaneously, they were saving upwards of thirty percent in water costs.

Furthermore, Newhall Land formed a tight association with Calsense, adopting the irrigation technologies promoted by the company. It began with a flow meter that would shut off the water in the event of a broken mainline or other problem. An in-ground sensoring system that would water the plants only on an as-needed basis was employed, as was a centralized computer control system. In the mid- to late 1990s, Newhall’s irrigation came to include Et controllers, thereby making the watering that much more efficient by relying on air moisture readings, rather than being overly trustful of soil moisture data.

Going forth from here
Today, Newhall Land is preparing for its next step: a development called Newhall Ranch, expected to be fully approved by the County of Los Angeles in 2003 and built over the next 25 years. Newhall Ranch will be comprised of a 19-square-mile community, considered home to an estimated 60,000 people. The development will include more than 6000 acres of open space, a 15-acre lake, an 18-hole golf course, seven schools, and a reclaimed water system for all common areas.

Of course, things aren’t as they were in 1965, or even in 1995, and that has meant new challenges faced not only by Newhall Land, but by most of the nation’s developers.

By the wisdom honed in Valencia, and through the utilization of techniques and technologies like subsurface irrigation and Et controllers, Newhall Land Company will seek to make an exact science of water conservation in Newhall Ranch, thereby enabling healthy lawns and landscapes, even in the face of severe drought and water shortages. Another piece of the water conservation vision is the inclusion in the community of a water reclamation plant, which is intended to provide one-third of the Newhall Ranch water supply.

“Our new community at Newhall Ranch is a 25-year project, so we’re looking at what we can do — beyond what we’re doing now — to conserve water in the next 25 years,” Keogh explains. “You have to just keep trying to conserve as much as you can. Our climate dictates continued water conservation. The historic rainfall averages only fourteen to sixteen inches annually.”

While Newhall does explore the most state-of-the-art products, it should be noted that the developer’s approach to water conserving irrigation and landscaping isn’t solely a factor of technology. High-tech tools will only be as valuable in Newhall Ranch as their fit into an integrated system.

Jute netting controls erosion while bubblers (point irrigation) put water only to the plant.Mass plantings of acacia were used

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Keogh says, “If somebody declares they’re going to conserve water by installing drought-tolerant plant material, well, they’d better have the water delivery system to match that, and the maintenance follow-up to accomplish that goal. You can have all the computer systems in the world, but if maintenance and water management don’t follow through, you’ve wasted your time, water and money.”

In other words, part of the challenge of making the Newhall Ranch plan come together will be to coordinate the efforts of the contractors and community leaders. When the development is ultimately turned over to a homeowner association or local government, those entities will have to be equipped to keep all the systems going. Calsense President David Byma explains how, to this end, Newhall is currently installing communications options on the controllers that will permit this to be a turnkey system. Then, once the community is handed over to the city or county, they can begin operating it themselves. The methodologies begun in the master plan will keep living — and growing.

In addition to the aforementioned discoveries, Keogh cites other lessons learned in Valencia that will be applied in Newhall Ranch:

  • The commitment to central irrigation control systems must be accepted by whomever maintains that system in the future, be it a local government or a homeowner association;
  • One can assume that irrigation computer control systems will get better in terms of technology, so it’s wise to think in terms of how easily an “old” system can be retrofitted;
  • Computerized irrigation systems should be easy to maintain and understood by the average worker;
  • Educating the end-user is key to the long-term success of the system.

None of this is to suggest that Newhall Land Company has all the answers, but its flexibility is what appears to open the possibility of Newhall Ranch as a community with the best of both worlds: exceptional landscaping and minimized water consumption.

Stay Green is the company responsible for much of the maintenance, and in some cases the installation of fertigation units, in Valencia, and the company is expected to continue in this capacity with Newhall Ranch. Says Stay Green President and Operations Manager Rich Angelo, “Newhall is certainly willing to try things that most people would not, and I think that’s been one of the reasons they’ve been successful. And if it doesn’t work, they’re willing to change.”

Going against the grain
This isn’t to say, either, that everybody embraces Newhall’s methodologies or that every contractor who installs irrigation will — or can — rush out to do what has been done in Valencia. One argument is that subsurface irrigation — while certainly a practice with impressive water conserving results — is just too costly in terms of maintenance. In some respects, the developers and contractors are still seeking common ground.

Newhall Land being the exception, a legitimate comment from within the industry is that water conservation, while a worthy concept, is only in demand during times of crisis. Contractors wonder how they can play a role in finding the latest and greatest irrigation techniques when no one is asking for them. Those who break away from the accepted practices are prone to finding themselves full of knowledge but short on cash. Will innovative developments sway the markets, including the market that Keogh considers the “holy grail” of water misuse, the residential homeowners?

“What we do is market-driven,” Angelo says. “We like to be on the cutting edge, but if nobody’s paying for it, it’s the bleeding edge.” Angelo cites his observation that, during times of severe drought, everybody is jumping on the water conservation bandwagon, willing to listen to resource-saving ideas. Once the crisis is over, on the other hand, it’s business as usual, and homeowners simply aren’t willing to pay. In such a case, the best that most companies can hope for is to keep their employees up-to-date on the latest techniques, and then to lay all the options on clients’ tables.

For the green industry, the examples set by Valencia and, ultimately Newhall Ranch, are models of the future. However, if the model set forth by innovative developers resonates far enough, the demand for water conservation could continue even beyond the current drought.

“A lot of people think this is so overwhelming and difficult that they just can’t do it,” says Byma.
“ ‘Very costly? — prohibitive? — forget it.’ But if you make people aware that there are companies out there that are trying this, successfully, then the industry as a whole is going to look at it and say, ‘If they can do it, why can’t I?’”

Furthermore, the concerns of governing bodies may force the demand for water conservation into the marketplace. “I see it more and more with developers,” Angelo explains, “because I think the cities are mandating it through the planning process. But few do it because they want to.”
Here’s yet another reason for developers and the green industry to work more closely together: if governments mandate water standards, what’s to keep them from dictating the exact specifications of irrigation systems and landscapes?

“We’re not sure what the future is going to bring,” Keogh says. “We know that we will continue to use water; it’s how we as an industry steward the use of resources that will al-low our communities to sustain over the long haul.”

As far as landscaping is concerned, what will contractors and developers carry away from the Newhall Ranch example? “Basically,” says Byma, “the message is that as a group or an industry,
we all have to sit down and figure this thing out ourselves before somebody else does.”

Newhall Land’s Gary Cusumano, chief executive officer, says, “Our company has a proud history of stewardship of our land, as farmers originally, and now as community planners. We know that proactive management of natural resources like water is critical to our long-term success, and therefore, have focused significant attention on the latest technology and methods of conservation, as well as long-term water planning. The result is an efficient use of water within an appropriately landscaped community, and the reassurance that there will be plenty of water for future generations.”

With concerned corporations like Newhall Land working closely with the landscape industry, we can make water go further.

December 2002