Dealing with Drought: Water Efficiency Best Practices
Clint Collins, senior director, landscape operations, Irvine Company Office Properties, was recently a special guest in an “Outsmarting the Drought” webinar series, presented by HydroPoint Data Systems. Collins spent 28 years with ValleyCrest Landscape; is a member of the board of directors BOMA/O.C.; and is responsible for the Irvine Company office portfolio, consisting of more than 500 buildings, 30 million square feet of landscape, 12 million square feet of turf and more than 50,000 trees. His insights from the “Outsmarting the Drought” series are as follows:
Q: What has changed for you and the Irvine Company since the governor’s executive order mandating water reduction?
Collins: Well, the biggest change is the mandatory water reduction percentages on the potable water for each water agency. And that’s a really important distinction. All of these mandates only apply to potable water. Prior to this, the water reductions have pretty much been voluntary. But, unfortunately, not enough people took that seriously, and they didn’t make the changes that had been long overdue. The other big one for us is that mandate where you have to turn off all the water to city medians that have turf on potable water.
Q: What percentage of your irrigation is potable water versus reclaimed?
Collins: Statewide, we are 48 percent potable and 52 percent reclaimed. But here in Irvine, where we have been pioneering the use of it – we actually helped build the first reclamation center in 1968 – we’re over 70 percent with many more online coming, conversions to reclaimed.
Q: Following up on what you said about the mandate to turn off water to medians, how do you think that will affect the overall appeal and/or your plant palette?
Collins: Well, the medians, for us, happen to be in one of our most important areas in Newport Beach. So, there’s no way we can just have dead turf medians – that just doesn’t work – so, basically, we’re going to have to look at other alternatives, including re-landscaping with drip [irrigation] and drought-tolerant shrubs.
Q: What steps have you taken to address water efficiency?
Collins: Since Irvine Company was founded – and we were originally an agricultural company, and we’ve been in business for more than 150 years – we’ve been thoughtful stewards of some of the most valuable land anywhere, conserving and reusing water by all means available. And we strive to build and operate our communities and properties in a sustainable, environmentally sensitive way. And throughout our long history we’ve experienced numerous droughts, and we’ve made major investments in programs and pioneered systems and infrastructure designed to reduce that water usage up front, and then extensively reclaim and reuse that water whenever possible. Like I was saying, we pioneered the use of reclaimed water, and in the mid ‘70s we started using it for apartments, office, retail and communities in the City of Irvine.
I think you can break good water conservation down into three best practice categories: the first one will be the upgrading your irrigation infrastructure. We use smart controllers – we currently have more than 470 WeatherTRAK controllers just in office properties alone. We’ve converted to low-flow sprinklers in turf areas, this helps the soil to absorb the water instead of running off onto the hardscape. We use drip irrigation where possible, especially in parking lot islands, which has the added benefit of reducing cost for repairing water damage on asphalt. And we use master valves with flow sensing as much as possible to prevent water loss due to main line breaks and stuck valves. This has become an even greater priority due to recent changes in the law making any runoff illegal and subject to fines.
I think the second best practice is basically the cultural stuff; and that is greater emphasis on installing low-water-use plant material on all properties going forward, and on some retrofits. Reducing the amount of turfgrass; keep in mind, focus your efforts on your potable systems – that’s where you get your biggest bang for your buck right now. I would try to keep your footprint to about 30 percent. Mulching to retain soil moisture; we always try to keep at least a two-inch layer of mulch at all times to keep the water from evaporating. And minimizing the scalping and overseeding of turf areas. We used to do that annually, and now we just do it in very select areas – if at all – because it takes a lot of water to germinate new seed.
The third best practice is partnering and accountability. Just the infrastructure alone won’t do it – you have to partner with your vendors and with the owners. One of the things we require is a monthly irrigation inspection. This is hugely important. Irrigation systems have a lot of rubber and plastic in them, and they need constant attention. If nobody is paying attention to that, you are inevitably going to have leaks and be wasting water. It’s super important to water to your local ET, and make sure your vendors know what that allocation is each week based on that ET. And we also require them to read the water meter every week to make sure they are on track to stay with that allocation. So it’s really important that you have some sort of informational campaign to educate the public on that.
Then, moving to more of a big picture kind of thing, I think the single best strategy in this particular mandate is to pursue converting any potable property to reclaimed water. If you do that, you are going to be exempt from all of the regulations, and it’s the right thing to do for landscape.
Another tactic would be working with your water agencies to try to get them to adopt a tiered rate system based on ET allocations using warm-season grass as a crop coefficient. That’s the model used by the IRWD here in Irvine, who I think are some of the leaders in water management. And if you upgrade to those infrastructures I just talked about, it’s really not difficult to water to that standard.
Any districts that go to a limited mandatory watering day – that’s a great sound bite, and it makes it sound like you are doing something. But it’s actually not really effective at saving water. And it actually works against you if you have invested in low flow and other water-saving technologies – you don’t have a long enough water window to get the water out there. So, during those situations, people are going to tend to flood irrigate, and a lot of that water is going to run off and go into storm drains, which is sad.
And turf has become the villain here. And it does use about 40 percent more water than non-turf on average. So a good strategy is to try to reduce your percentage of turf on your potable systems to the low-water use shrubs of drip, and take advantage of any available rebates. I would try to keep your footprint to about 30 percent of your landscape on the potable.
Another strategy is that you can convert your existing turfgrass to a native grass or buffalo grass. A lot of these varieties use 75 percent less water than our standard tall fescue. But don’t think that you are getting a tall fescue nice, beautiful, mowed lawn. They are just not that. They are not as green and lush, and a lot of them go dormant in the winter.
You could always go full bore and completely re-landscape a property with full drought-appropriate landscape palette with drip and low flow. That would get you out of the woods forever, but it is a very expensive option.