It appears as though the EPA, the USGBC and a couple of other leaders in the landscape and irrigation industries are leaning toward “rewarding” the elimination of irrigation in a residential or commercial landscape plan higher than implementing efficient irrigation. The USGBA is specifically considering altering its LEED points program.
Wow! This seems to me a huge step backward. Do we want to take water management and accountability off the table entirely? Should we leave six-figure landscapes in the incorrigible hands of nature? Does it not matter that we’ve learned landscape ornamental and turf values for water needs, and can program computers to drive them — including shutting them down when there’s a significant malfunction?
Granted, these agencies and organizations strive to offer measured, logical and effective approaches to cultivating sustainable landscape infrastructure, design and management practices. But eliminating landscape irrigation precludes entirely a critical control element to effective landscape management. You have a couple of bad summers and people start dragging hoses around watering from the hip in the name of “sustainability.” Now we’ve lost accountability. No one knows who’s applying how much water where. With a properly designed, well-managed irrigation system we know the landscape’s needs and can sustain it — or only parts of it, if we so choose — at whatever level deemed necessary.
Much of what concerns me is that the irrigation industry was not formally consulted in the early formulation of these proposed policies. Such sweeping mandates should be developed with significant input from professionals in the allied turf, landscape and irrigation industries. This approach enlists specialty expertise in numerous areas of landscape infrastructure, design and management.
But my greatest concern is the radical mindset of otherwise respectable and progressive organizations. The wholesale elimination of irrigation for landscapes that require significant capital investment — including those landscapes implementing drought-tolerant and/or native plants — seems penny-wise and pound-foolish. If sustainability is their beacon, they should be rewarding efficient design, installation and management of established landscape irrigation principles.
And how will our cities and neighborhoods look? The value of urban landscaping can’t be overstated. Carbon sequestering, edifice cooling, wildlife habitat, erosion control, groundwater filtration, athletics and recreation are just a few of the important benefits. Many of these benefits can be realized using drought-tolerant and native plant species specific to area climates and site microclimates. But leaving landscapes vulnerable to the cyclic weather whims of the planet is folly.
Protracted drought can devastate the most native of plants, destroying expensive and ecologically valuable landscapes for residences and storefronts alike. Regardless of the plant material selected, a landscape investment can be as substantial in cost as it is important to the local ecology. Leaving such a significant expenditure to the devices of prolonged drought is both irresponsible and wasteful.
Surely, properly designed, evapotranspiration-based automatic irrigation operated by historical climate data, real-time site conditions and competent, well-trained site managers holds the promise of effective water conservation and large-scale responsible resource stewardship. Modern irrigation represents the controlled application of water. Its presence in the landscape is no less vital than controlling water through drainage, curbs and gutters.
And let’s not forget that the presence of modern irrigation generates important water-use accountability and data, further refining our understanding and application of plant-soil-water dynamics. What do these proposed changes imply to potential research and development — and educational advances — in promoting no irrigation over efficient irrigation? Why bother?
Irrigation advances, critical to the health and sustainability of urban landscapes, are generated through market demands — those in the field requesting materials and capabilities to improve their water management practices. The mere notion of eliminating landscape irrigation can suppress new information and product development.
Diverting the focus from irrigation design and water-resource management by offering incentives for “no-irrigation” plans runs counterintuitive to sensitively managing our local urban landscapes. How many acres of existing landscape are out there and how would such a lack of irrigation focus affect their management?
I understand using a responsible native/drought-tolerant plant palette developed for local conditions — as well as site exposures and slopes — along with aggressive soil conditioning to improve landscape sustainability. That’s all a slam-dunk. But the key ingredient to successful landscape sustainability is the proper management of water resources.
Before we start promoting landscapes sans irrigation, let’s take a close look at what we’re able to do through proper plant selection, soil amending, efficient irrigation design and progressive water management. Look what’s being done with green roof, graywater, reclaimed water and large-scale rainwater harvesting systems. The original green industry is making real progress in conserving old resources while developing new ones.
Yes, there’s irrigation water waste out there. Sure, we can (and should, and will) do better. But the solution should be to generate more and better tools — not close our eyes to future possibilities and opportunities. At the very least, irrigation represents vital establishment and safety net functions for our landscapes in times of prolonged drought. Ideally, performance irrigation provides healthy landscape plant material; minimizes pesticide and fertilizer applications; controls water applications and system breaks; tracks valuable water use information; and provides safe recreational, cultural and aesthetic community benefits.
Stewardship of a diminishing yet vital natural resource is an awesome responsibility. I’m confident that green industry professionals are up to the task.
Luke Frank has been an editor and publisher in the green industry for the past 17 years, addressing water resource development, management and conservation through the irrigation profession. His field experience includes 17 years as an irrigation foreman, contractor and manager in the landscape, turf, golf and nursery industries. He currently resides in Albuquerque, N.M., and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.