Are Water Features Water Wasters?

We’ve been accustomed to a limitless supply of cheap, even ‘free’ water for years. Now it’s becoming painfully obvious that those days are coming to an end. Growing populations have drained down aquifers across the continent. Dated stormwater management systems are in desperate need of an overhaul as heavy rains, often contaminated by raw sewage, flow directly into the nearest creek, river or ocean, rather than into recharge basins, and in many areas the rains aren’t falling at all as weather patterns shift.

Droughts are nothing new; however, as the population moves into more severe climate conditions, in areas that we’re already straining to support, the burden becomes more difficult. But it isn’t only California, or even the West Coast, that is experiencing drought, although these areas are the most severely impacted. The Northern Plains, the Southwest, the Southeast, even the well-watered Northeast have all recently faced the spectre of drought restrictions as well.

Unfortunately, responses to over-stretched water supplies have a direct effect on the Green Industry. Using the West Coast as an example, California, in its fourth season of drought, is adopting an unprecedented series of water saving measures. In addition to mandating a statewide 25 percent reduction in overall potable urban water use, and urging the replacement of old appliances with more water- and energy-efficient models, Governor Brown specifically targeted landscape and agricultural water usage by Executive Order to:

•Replace 50 million square feet of lawns throughout the state with drought-tolerant landscaping, in partnership with local governments;

•Require campuses, golf courses, cemeteries and other large landscapes to make significant cuts in water use; and

•Prohibit new homes and developments from irrigating with potable water unless water-efficient drip irrigation systems are used, and ban watering of ornamental grass on public street medians.

Misunderstood and maligned, ornamental water features are also on the chopping block, but for all the wrong reasons. As we discovered with horror during the preliminary review of the EPA WaterSense initiative, the popularly-held belief in political circles is that water features are functionless and impractical, fed by open taps running water off into the landscape. The lack of information about how modern water features work, and their myriad health and environmental benefits, led to a blanket prohibition of ornamental water features in a Draft of the Water-Efficient Single-Family New Home Specification of May 22, 2008:

•4.1.4 Ornamental water feature – “Builders shall not install or facilitate the installation of ornamental water features. Explaining …. because these water features serve no functional or practical purpose, their water use is not considered efficient.”

In that instance, thankfully, a small, vocal consortium, alerted by the late Andy Smith (who will be sorely missed) and backed by dedicated water-feature manufacturers, contractors and activists, was able to explain the concept of ‘recirculation’ to Congressmen—no small task!— and outline the functional and practical aspects of fountains, ponds, waterfalls, man-made streams and other decorative water-related construction. This has led to a realistic revision of the WaterSense Home guidelines. The Final Specification now reads:

•4.1.5 Ornamental water features – Ornamental water features financed, installed, or sold as upgrades by the homebuilder must recirculate water and serve a beneficial use.

Unfortunately, the misconception that ‘water features are water wasters,’ with recirculation the exception instead of the rule, still persists. A case in point is the wording of the Los Angeles Water Works Districts Restrictions, Clause 4, banning “operating a fountain or other decorative water feature, except where the water is part of a recirculating system.” San Diego went even further in its Additional Drought Alert Restrictions, mandating that homeowners must “Stop operation of ornamental fountains, except to the extent needed for maintenance purposes.”

The fact that most water features with moving water use recirculating pumps is apparently as unknown to many legislative bodies as it was to the EPA. It is just one of the mistaken assumptions that give rise to the idea that these features use far more water than they actually do.

In fact, the vast majority of modern water features are inherently water conservative, going to great lengths in their designs to retain, rather than require, water. Impervious liners like EPDM, PVC and LLDPE completely waterproof the typical feature, with far fewer losses to leakage, seepage or absorption. Unless there’s an actual hole somewhere, the only water that needs to be replaced in today’s water features is what’s lost to evaporation and splash.

In the last decade, well-designed, inexpensive rainwater-harvesting devices, such as first-flush diverters, provide a convenient way to keep larger features filled when rains permit, recapturing what is lost to the atmosphere. Contrary to popular perception, the water consumed by water features just doesn’t add up to much, in the larger picture of total water usage in the landscape.

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So what does this mean for those of us in the irrigation industry? Well, it means that more pressure is on the industry to adopt new, more conservative irrigation strategies and technology. These measures will require investment, education and training.

While regional water authorities are paying homeowners to eliminate irrigated landscapes altogether, water features offer irrigation contractors a highly desirable, easily installed, high-margin option to expand their portfolios.

Ponds are not the answer, for a number of reasons. They are the type of water feature most susceptible to evaporation losses, because of their large open water surface exposed to wind and sun. Even though they may use less water than flood or overhead irrigation, they are the hardest water feature to sell to the drought-conscious.

In addition, ponds aren’t as popular as they once were, even in well-watered areas. They are the hardest feature to install, require the most training before and the most maintenance after installation, and they cost more than other features, all else being equal.

Sales data polled informally from a number of water-feature equipment manufacturers show a shift in the type of water feature most commonly installed today versus ten or twenty years ago. The large natural-looking ponds that were the rage in backyards during the ’90s and early 2000s are being supplanted by more intimate and accessible wall fountains, overflowing vases and bubbling boulders in outdoor living spaces. These features require much less maintenance and use far less electricity and water than ponds.

Best of all for irrigators looking to ‘test the waters,’ the simplest of these features are those set in self-contained basins. They require very little training, no new tools or technology to install and little to no care after the sale. Small wonder the popularity of these hardscape features has exploded over the last five years!

As crews get more familiar with these new products, they can advance to pond-free features, stone waterfalls and streams for those customers who prefer the natural look but don’t want the upkeep and liability of a pond.

Water stored and recirculated from an underground reservoir is protected from evaporation; the closed basin is liability-free, safe for children and animals and impervious to algae and debris issues.

In addition, pond-free features can be turned on and off at will. Some skill with rockwork will be needed, but the equipment is easy to install, available in matched kits that eliminate guesswork and are almost foolproof.

However, we have some work to do. Water features are under attack, for all the wrong reasons. I hope by now it’s obvious that the water consumption of even the least conservative of water features, under the worst possible conditions in the country, is relatively inconsequential.

I also hope you’ll begin offering water features in your expanded portfolio, if you aren’t already (right next to LED lighting—but that’s another story). The next time you hear of legislation seeking to ban ‘wasteful water features,’ write your local legislator and tell him it’s a drop in the bucket.