Why Save Water?

On May 20, 2010, the Department of Water Resources announced that late season storms have allowed the department to increase its final 2010 State Water Project (SWP) allocation to 45 percent of requested amounts — nine times the previous estimate, providing significant relief to the 25 million Californians who are affected by the SWP.

The state essentially just said, “Good news: we’re increasing the SWP water delivery estimate by 900 percent!” Unfortunately, this may lead some to believe that we can relax a little with regard to water conservation.

That would be a big mistake.

Even as the rain has been falling, rivers are flowing and reservoirs are full…

False Sense Of Security

“While the increase in deliveries is good news,” says DWR Director Mark Cowin, “we will continue to have a water supply crisis until we improve our conveyance system, increase storage, and resolve the complex environmental problems of the Delta.”

Even with the recent replenishment of our water supply, we still have the problems that prompted the landscape industry to embrace water conservation in the first place. And they’re here to stay for the foreseeable future.

“The problem is that even though some areas have good reservoir levels and rivers running, the infrastructure (storage, delivery systems, etc.) was designed and built for a population only a fraction of the size we have today,” says Peter Estournes CLP, CLIA of Gardenworks, Inc. in Healdsburg. “So in wet years, it’s not an issue of having enough water, it’s getting enough water through the pipe to meet the demand.”

Water restrictions are easing (for now). But water rates continue to rise. California’s population keeps getting bigger. Drought is cyclical in our mostly-desert state. As such, there continue to be many compelling business reasons for the industry to remain vigilant.

Real World Tech Evolution and Application

The landscape industry started hearing about weather-based irrigation controllers in a broad sense about 10 years ago. At that time there were several companies at the starting gate, each offering its own unique approach, but none overcoming the confusion being generated due to the inherent complexities of each type of controller. The then-new tech was easily misunderstood and hadn’t been “shaken out” yet. As a result, many early adopters ended up treating them like clocks.

“Unless technology is user-friendly, the more complex it is, the more likely people will encounter problems,” says Mike Garcia, Enviroscape Inc. in Redondo Beach. “As a result, they’ll go back to doing things the way they’re familiar with doing them.”

Recently though, smart controllers have become more commonplace, come down in price, and are recommended (and even subsidized in many areas) by water agencies as part of a comprehensive package of water-saving measures. “There’s also more standardization,” adds Estournes. “The hardware is sound.” But the complexities are still challenging. “The problem I have as a professional is that there is a large number of variables that have to be taken into account in order to program them correctly (up to 15), and they don’t speak English; they speak math.”

Warren Gorowitz, VP, Sustainability & Conservation for Ewing Irrigation, understands the challenges and has been part of the evolving process since the early days of smart controllers. “The silver bullet has always been putting a weather-based controller on an irrigation system so that it can save water,” he says. “Which it can, but first the irrigation system itself has to be up to speed. It’s like someone once said: you can put a smart controller on a dumb irrigation system, but it will still waste a lot of water.

“So the first thing that needs to happen is the contractor has to convince the customer of the need to go through the existing system,” Gorowitz adds. “Fix any leaks and replace certain components (such as heads) with their more efficient counterparts. Then the smart controller can do its job much more efficiently.”

Gorowitz notes that several manufacturers are starting to put training videos online that walk users through the steps of setting up and adjusting smart controllers. “It comes down to education,” he says, “so making that instantly accessible is going a long way toward helping clear the hurdle.”

Estournes agrees that smart controllers are part of the solution, but not as a standalone. “If you take the concept that Californians on average over-water their landscapes by 50-300 percent, and incorporate a smart controller that’s programmed somewhat correctly, then yes, it’s probably going to save some water. But if you really want to improve water efficiency, you have to take things into account like ET (evapotranspiration), develop a water budget for the site, and then manage the water going through the valves in accordance with the budget.”

The technology continues to evolve. The first ten years were the hardest. The next ten have begun with good momentum. But without the basics, tech can only go so far.

Sustainable Water Landscape
Samscaping of Mountain View moderated smaller turf areas on this site with elegantly planned water-wise plant material and hardscape.

“People want something that saves water, doesn’t cost a lot and looks beautiful,” says Mike Garcia. “But a lot of times, when I first talk to a prospect, they’re under the impression to some degree that ‘saving water’ equals ‘barren-looking yard.’ So the first thing we need to do is educate them in order to remove that expectation, because it’s simply not true.”

Garcia notes that a typical conversation includes explaining some basic differences between traditional turf-dominant yards and designs that require far less water, helping guide them towards a mindset to where they realize they don’t have to choose between enjoyment and water savings: they can have both.

“I’ll ask them, ‘are you into saving money?’ I’ve never had anyone say no—who doesn’t want to save money? They’ll mention things like wanting grass and trees, etc. When they mention turf (which most do), I ask them, ‘what do you want to use your turf for?’ In a lot of cases, nobody’s ever asked them that question before; it’s like turf is the default assumption of what’s ‘supposed to be’ in a yard. So I tell them, fine, we’ll put in turf for you, but let’s put in just enough that you get full use of it the way you want to, and then let’s do something else with the rest of the yard.

“Then I reassure the customer that the designer will put together a plan that’s custom-tailored to their tastes and surroundings (house, environment, etc.),” Garcia says. “At that point I show them pictures, but the most effective thing is to give them the addresses of where they can see our work in person. That’s what really brings the concepts to life for them. And I’ve never had a single person say to me, ‘gee, I didn’t like that.’ “


Estournes emphasizes that there’s no way to separate landscape and water management. “When clients hire me to manage their landscapes, part of that involves managing their water. Clients don’t divide out those two things. It’s what they expect, and rightfully so.

“Water conservation really is the future,” he adds.