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Staying Ahead of the Water Wars

By Lyle Lavietes

LyleLavietesPhotoIn the “My Perspective” piece I wrote for WaterShapes EXTRA! last May, I shared my thoughts about the universal nature of water and how our relationship to it binds watershapers from all specialties — pools, ponds, waterfalls and all the rest.

Along the way, I made the point that water, in all of its perceived abundance, is too often taken for granted. Like it or not, in fact, water is the new oil, a potentially powerful wedge issue in many political and financial decisions.

If you need evidence to support that concept, just look at land development in virtually any region of the country and you’ll find that water is at the top of the list of issues requiring some form of resolution and regulation. California, at the epicenter for these sorts of water-related controversies, has recently enacted a water policy that sets a minimum standard for true water conservation on all new construction that, beyond a certain threshold, requires a building permit.

Although some may cringe at the thought of any additional regulation, I believe this ordinance makes sense. At its core is a significant acknowledgment that beautiful landscape plantings and environments are essential to our health and well-being:

“Landscapes are essential to the quality of life in California by providing areas for active and passive recreation and as an enhancement to the environment by cleaning air and water, preventing erosion, offering fire protection, and replacing ecosystems lost to development. Landscape design, installation, maintenance, and management can and should be water efficient.” (AB 1881)

In fact, rather than posing fresh problems for us to overcome, I contend that this type of government mandate actually elevates our craft to a higher level as a result of the water-auditing and irrigation techniques mandated in the ordinance.

And the truth of the matter is, we’ve seen this sort of law coming for quite a while now — which is why one of my company’s specialties is the design and installation of sustainable landscapes that, once the plants are established, require just one or two waterings a month. This is possible even in Southern California, where summers can be brutal and there’s absolutely no public will to compromise on beauty or functionality.

The reason that the landscape industry needs to get out ahead of these water restrictions is plain as day: It won’t be long before water becomes a revenue source for government — and you know what that means.

We’re already under strict conservation orders in California even though our drought is over and we have ample water right now. The reason? The master wholesalers for the water agencies have ordered a 20 percent reduction in total water use.

To meet that goal (and increase revenue), some local water agencies have established three-tier pricing that penalizes over-budget water use based on an arbitrary formula that nobody seems to be able to explain. Can you imagine spending more than $1,000 a month just to irrigate your landscape? This is not unheard of in parts of Southern California, where my clients’ water bills are often as high as their electricity bills.

It’s certainly true that gardens and lawns are among the highest consumers of water. As I see it, with sustainable landscapes, we can reduce the burden on property owners and help conserve precious water for use in other features, including the watershapes everyone enjoys and that we as professionals need for our designs and prosperity.

My fear is that, without ample water, some nameless, faceless bureaucrat will move to cut all “ornamental” uses of water during our next crisis. We all know what that would do to business (as if we needed more problems these days).

As professionals, we also know that water management is a tough concept to teach to consumers — many of whom are inclined to flood their gardens because they think single struggling plants must be “cured” by adding water, even if the opposite is true and withholding water would be a far better idea.

Indeed, overwatering is the real enemy here. In my estimation, somewhere approaching 90 percent of property owners go overboard in watering, with the excess spilling into streets and down drains, carrying everyone’s hard-earned money with it. Try as I might, I can’t convince all of my clients that overwatered plants will drown, even when we just turn off the sprinklers and those same resistant clients are amazed at the way their gardens recover.

In our current projects, we do all we can to contain water on site rather than letting it flow to waste. My irrigation systems, for example, use a combination of state-of-the-art, low-flow sprinkler nozzles, along with smart timers and proper hydrozoning (that is, making sure plants are grouped based upon water requirements). Not only does this keep water from going down the drain, it also limits the runoff of fertilizers and other pollutants — another environmental factor that’s gaining the attention of regulators.

As I see it, we watershapers — as craftspeople, business managers and members of our communities — must join the water-conservation movement and stay ahead of these issues. Not only is it the right thing do, but, for a profession that depends on water, it may be the only thing to do.

Lyle Lavietes is president of Lyle Lavietes Landscape Contractor Inc., a Southern California-based firm that designs and builds complete landscape environments — including wateshapes, hardscapes, ornamental and sustainable gardens, and environmentally friendly irrigation systems. For more information, go to www.lylelavieteslandscape.com.

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