The Drought Response

Responding to the worst drought in 100 (300?) years has been confusing, disturbing and difficult. The main unanswerable questions are, “How long is it going to last?” and “Is global warming or other conditions going to cause this kind of drought to be more common place?” Implicit in these questions is the question being asked by water utilities, city governments and members of the Green Industry: “How much money should we invest in changes that will conserve water?” If in two years the drought is over and will not be this bad again for 100 years, then why bother to reinvent our utilities and businesses? On the other hand, if water providers, city councils and the Green Industry are not proactive about water conservation, and the drought cycle lasts for a long time, consequences could be devastating, and the public could get furious.

The Colorado State legislature is facing about 30 bills this session which focus on response to our drought. Some propose increasing our water supply. These include plans to repair dams and expand storage, drill more wells into the Denver Aquifer and the controversial and very expensive Big Straw Project. Other bills focus on water conservation measures and incentives. Since there is a limit to the amount of water we can keep adding to our supply, conservation is sure to be our main solution.

On the local level, the earliest responses to our drought were extreme and understandably not well thought out. Water utilities responded with restrictions that varied widely. Boulder imposed the most severe restrictions, starting in May and only allowing outdoor watering twice a week for 15 minutes per zone. To their credit, this approach did save 28% of normal use; however trees and gardens suffered, lawns were brown, and we don’t know the long-term effects. Other water providers waited too long to impose restrictions and so ran down their reserves which will necessitate severe restrictions in 2003.

Some responses to watering restrictions were not quotable and the poor water utilities people got blasted by angry homeowners and angrier plant professionals. Some businesses did, if fact, go under; and thousands of Green Industry professionals saw their income reduced greatly. The Turf Grass Industry in particular got blamed for using so much water and “causing” our water shortage. Because of the crisis level at which things needed to be done, it was a good thing that there was an organization in place to represent the Green Industry. GreenCo is a collaborative organization formed over 10 years ago, of nine plant professional organizations including the Colorado Nursery Assn. and the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. The aim of GreenCo is to share information, improve communication between members and to provide a budget for big expenses like lobbying in order to represent Green Industry issues.

Why is this of any interest to gardeners? It may be as surprising to you as it was to me, that according to many water utilities, water use is prioritized like this:

  1. Indoor water use is defined as essential (regardless of inefficiency and waste).
  2. Business water use is defined as essential (this includes car washes, bottling companies and golf courses).
  3. Landscaping is defined as non-essential (regardless of the impact on plant related businesses and homeowner investments in landscape). Therefore in response to a drought, the non-essential uses are cut off first. This is why the only mandatory restrictions were placed on landscape use. It is, of course, unfair that one segment of the community should make the sacrifices necessary to solve the water problem of the entire community.

The Green Industry then had a meeting with the Blue Industry (the water utilities) at which it was agreed there should be no bickering and blaming, and there were several hours spent on coming up with constructive solutions and establishing open lines of communication. I attended this meeting and although it was very civilized and constructive, I was surprised that xeriscape was only mentioned once by an audience member and drip irrigation was not discussed as a solution. Apparently both subjects are controversial and lack industry-wide approval.

Early in the debate, the Green Industry was understandably defensive. I kept hearing, “Plants don’t waste water; people waste water,” which does have some truth in it. And I heard one leader proclaim that like all other businesses, the Green Industry should get as much water as it takes to do business. Of course you can’t squeeze water out of an empty reservoir. Later on, the responses got less reactive and more constructive. Boulder had a public Drought Restrictions Review meeting in August and as a result, relaxed the restrictions to include a once a month tree-watering day. Both in Ft. Collins and Greeley, advisory groups were formed of Green Industry professionals, city staff and utilities staff to help design water use policy. This was a much friendlier and more intelligent approach that may be followed in Boulder and other communities. By the end of the year, some area-wide agreements were made about restrictions. For 2003, all major Front Range water providers will share this form:

  1. A centralized information source to which all utilities will report their plans for watering restrictions.
  2. All restrictions will limit watering to twice a week on the same schedule. (see box insert).
  3. No watering 10am-6pm. Each utility will determine its own duration of watering and any particulars regarding hand watering, drip etc.

2003 Front Range Water Restriction Schedule

Sunday: Single family with even address

Monday: Special needs and permits

Tuesday: Multi-family and commercial

Wednesday: Single families with odd address

Thursday: Single families with even address

Friday: Multi-family and commercial

Saturday: Single family with odd address

No watering 10am-6pm

Five or six years ago, GreenCo organized a special task force to prepare for a potential drought. It is called WELL: Water Efficient Leaders in Landscape, and includes representatives from CSU Coop Extension, Denver Water, Colorado Water Wise Council, GreenCo members and others. In 2002, responding to the real drought, they developed a manual for use by Green Industry professionals which includes practices that are efficient and effective for water conservation. This resource is called Best Management Practices and was made available at the end of the season to all GreenCo members. The general public can also access this information on their website: www.greenco.org. In addition, GreenCo has outlined and begun carrying out a Water Efficient Landscape Action Plan. This plan has seven steps including data collection and sharing, researching specific plant water requirements, distributing conservation materials and giving training; and providing incentives to convert to water efficient systems and technologies.

Tom Ash, who has been hired by GreenCo as a water use strategist, is proposing that we can save a lot of water by using an ET controller that will automate irrigation scheduling. He has experience with this working in California. In a semi-arid climate like ours and especially during a drought, it is good to understand ET. ET stands for “evapotranspiration” and means the water quantity that evaporates from the soil plus the water that transpires from the plants. This quantity varies with temperature, humidity, wind and sun. An ET factor is usually expressed in inches and represents the amount of irrigation required to keep plants healthy. Since these calculations are all based on a Kentucky Bluegrass lawn area, I am not clear how it would apply to the needs of a xeriscape. In any case, this figure changes every day and represents the fact that a plant’s (a lawn’s) water needs are not the same every day. The problem is that irrigation systems are set to water the same amount every day, regardless of changing conditions, like rain. Tom’s ET controller is very sophisticated and can be calibrated to include soil type and slope. A radio signal is then sent daily from the weather station to the controller to adjust the watering frequency based on current conditions. Therefore the system will not run if it has been raining, it can reduce run-off by up to 50% and overall it saves water.

When water is cheap and plentiful, as it has been, it is customary to correct for inadequate coverage, poor design and even faulty equipment by over watering, which turf will often tolerate. However when water is restricted, the importance of well designed and efficient irrigation systems becomes obvious. Therefore, even though the ET controller probably works best for big lawns, it may turn out to be a useful water conservation tool.

Colorado Springs is an example of a city that made a very constructive response to the drought. Their restrictions began in mid June and tightened in September, and they saved 18% of normal outdoor use. The Colorado Springs Utilities Conservation Office, under the direction of Ann Seymour, adjusted restrictions to make them work for large properties, and they conducted commercial irrigation audits for large landscapes to help them use water more efficiently. They also ran an incentives program giving rebates to people who buy water efficient toilets and washing machines. (Even changing the toilets can save 10,000 gallons of water per year per household.) They also sent out helpful mailings with the water bills, ran an ad campaign, put conservation messages on billboards and had meter readers place door hangers with recommendations. They did not mandate industry to use less water, but encouraged them to do so and gave awards to those who were especially successful in conserving water. As a result, their winter water use was two million gallons a day less than the previous three winters. On top of that, they are changing the water supply to their electricity generation plant. Instead of using drinking water, they will soon have a pipe from the wastewater treatment plant to serve their electrical generators, which will provide tremendous savings.

One of the more common responses to watering restrictions was: “I could take care of my plants a lot better if you just tell me how much water I can use and let me water when and as long as I see fit.” Some people actually used more water under the restrictions, because they were afraid not to water when they were allowed. This brings up the subject of the Water Budget System. According to this method, each customer is given an allocation of water based on water availability, lot size and other possible data. The amount of water actually used is measured by the water meter, and feedback is given to the customer as to how well he met the budget. This method has many advantages; here are some of them:

  1. Because different irrigation systems use different amounts of water in the same time period, time-based restrictions are less fair than the budget system which accurately measures water use by the meter.
  2. Because water use can be measured, there is no need for “water cops”.
  3. Gardeners could water according to the needs of their plants and according to when best fits their schedules.
  4. Water budgeting puts emphasis on saving water indoors, which is about 50% of our water use.
  5. It would raise public awareness of water conservation, and encourage investment in water-saving toilets, washing machines and water-wise landscapes. (People who change their old toilets for the new 1.6 gallon models will save 10,000 gallons of water a year. This water could then be used to save their trees, establish a xeriscape or even plant some roses.) This system does require an investment by the city in computer software, data entry and water bill redesign. However in the long run it is a powerful tool that would encourage the efficient use of water in both normal and drought years.

One more subject deserves notice. The water utilities are businesses that sell water. If they don’t sell as much water, they don’t make as much money. And even though they have water conservation departments within the utilities, anyone can see there is an obvious conflict of interests. One way they can save water and money is to reduce the peak demand, because that brief period of extreme use requires more infrastructure than it is worth financially. In any case they must be careful not to save water too fast or they could be in economic trouble. Increasing water rates have come to some cities and will be coming to other communities; this is understandable. Raising rates on the highest level of water use is also a conservation tool.

Other drought responses: CSU and CSU Coop Extension have constructed a Drought Website at www.ext.colostate.edu/menudrought.html ; the Denver Botanic Gardens will be hosting a Water Smart Gardening Expo on February 15; the ProGreen Convention for the Green Industry offered new classes in response to the drought; and Jim Knopf has poured out his research and knowledge at countless meetings, as only someone could who has been in drought-response training for the past 20 years.

Throughout all these responses to our drought, one theme seems to stand out and ask to be named, and that is the theme of waste, of the unnecessary uses of water that we have ignored because water has been so plentiful and taken for granted. In general, we have been over watering our landscapes, and we are told more plants have died from too much water than not enough. We have been flushing a pint of pee with five gallons of drinking water. Our washing machines use more water than necessary. We have stood by the sink or the hose with the water pouring out. We have cultivated a variety of lawn grass that needs too much water for a semi-arid region. We have run our electricity generation with potable water, and we have swept our driveways with a hose instead of a broom. We have allowed water leaks to spill precious water from faucets and reservoirs—and on and on. If we just cut the waste, we would already have enough water; maybe even in a drought.

Copyright 2003 by Mikl Brawner