Recapping – Water Bills, Irrigation and Design

This is a relatively ancient piece (all the way back from mid-2009, ;-) )  I also feel this is one of my best articles on water usage, design and general conservation issues. Please note the quantities I list from our everyday activities so that we can have some quantitative material with which to address our own roles in understanding this complex but needful subject.

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Many thanks to Annette, the proprietor and blogger also known as Israel Mom for taking these pictures. Thay fit like a glove: (A big one).

WATER

How many of us actually read our water bills? I remember once, long ago, checking ours and I discovered we used nearly 20,000 gallons of water one July. I went………..”Whoa, Nelly!!!”

It was a wake up call at the time, especially inasmuch as the bill included the recent increase in the rates. This is usually where it hits first.

What we now face is and will be a consistent rise in the price of water as the years go by, owing to its increasing preciousness. I submit that Global Warming is a real event and very obvious. I have no idea whatsoever of Man’s role in it and I don’t wish to even argue that.But it has always been precious – from our very origins.

The picture below was once again taken by my great good friend Annette (Thanks, Annette!!) who actually does not live far from this picture, in Caesarium, in Israel. This construction gives us an idea of the extent to which Man has gone to supply water in the ancient past. This is the remains of an aqueduct. That small trough at the top that conducted water was the reason for this entire edifice. (Man, I love the Internet!)

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I know that there was an Ice Age about 25,000 years ago and there is not an Ice Age today. There are caves 200 feet above Reno, Nevada where can be found fishing implements from thousands of years ago. It has become obvious that these caves were on the virtual edge of a giant “super lake” called Lake Lahontan, some 6,000 miles in square dimension. Glaciers nearby where I live are no longer glaciers. Believe me, it’s warming up and we will face it in our water bills.

And besides, were that not the case, the population explosion would have deemed it precious anyway. The planet’s population had increased by a factor of 6 over 120 years. Here in Portland, we are already facing watering restrictions almost yearly.

So I’m here to help. I think there will eventually be changes and there already are, of course, out West in the US as well as in Australia, South Africa, the Middle East and in many, many regions.

Here we have the luxury of being able to consider such things as landscaping and edible or even flower gardening. Home owners and just plain garden lovers can devote lavish attention to something objective and stress-relieving in the pursuits and in the wonderful ambiance of our sitting gardens. As well, we can enjoy the labor of love towards them and our flower and food gardens. They are abundantly healthy for us and for others, in the end. And we can take so many different directions

I realize how odd it seems to put something like a swimming pool into a water conservation post, but the gallons of water used after filling are actually rather small. In fact, far less than watering a lawn, for example.

Maybe this next one resounds more with a way to get an interesting design while saving water. The scarcity of plantings can be an asset, as well as the fact that all the plants are fed via underground drip irrigation technology. The amount of water this landscape uses is less than, say, taking two baths a day. And it is not small.

Another view of the same property:

It turns out there are many ways to use water more efficiently. In fact, almost anywhere where we are compelled to take a watering can or to use a water wasting hose, we could get that same work done automatically and more efficiently by irrigating. Drip irrigation has the capacity to climb – I have installed many and various drip units to feed hanging baskets suspended 6-8 feet off the ground and for irrigating pots on the ground. I have had lines climb sculptures and have even bored holes in both cement and granite boulders to be able to irrigate a small plant ot basket/pot.

In drip irrigation, any emitter can put out a pre-designated amount of water. On hanging baskets, I typically install an emitter which has a device that can control the amount by a small turning up or down. The maximum is rarely reached but the amounts can be tweaked daily and easily if desired. In warm weather, we can put more water in by tweaking the mechanism, in cooler weather, by turning it down.

Here, once again, is a list of how much water we use during a typical day doing those things we do:

Bath: 50 gallons
Shower: 2 gallons per minute (15 minutes shower = 30 gallons)
Teeth brushing: 1 gallon
Hands/face washing: 1 gallon
Face/leg shaving: 1 gallon
Dishwasher: 20 gallons/load
Dishwashing by hand: 5 gallons/load
Clothes washing (machine): : 10 gallons/load
Toilet flush: 3 gallons
Glasses of water drunk: 8 oz. per glass (1/16th of a gallon)

Obviously, this is the baseline I use in my own considerations of how much water I want to see used.  What I am saying more than anything is that there are methods of ascertaining how much water we use up, and where. My other contention is that it is possible to use water at the same rate as almost anything else, like toilet flushing and bathing. Our bills do not have to spike at all during warm seasons, in order to have full, lush gardens and landscapes. It is by use of better irrigation practices and of utilizing all the design tools at our disposal that we can create even nicer gardens at a tenth of the water use.

Adding a room!

If we opt for doing things “the interesting way” by solving old landscaping problems once reserved for water-wasting lawns, we find we can still even have some lawn available for use, just less. And by “interesting” I mean by regarding the entire garden differently. Any more, there are more and more ways to expand out living area to the out of doors. Up-lighting now means we can build virtual “walls” of light at night, forming a limit on our field of vision and virtually visually enclosing an area of interest. Inside that area, we can feature interesting “hot zones”, where we make a waterfall “phosphorescent” by placing a low wattage Haloid lamp under a falls. (Thanks to “Outdoor Lighting Perspectives” for the picture):

All these things make things – well – different now. We are finding ourselves considering landscapes and gardens closer at hand, much more immediate than the models many of us were raised with – the expansive “Estate Garden”. Even now I actually do put some of those in. But they are typically done where someone has their own water source, fed from wells, so that his own water actually gets reused. Here’s one of those taken from one of the tiers. I actually feature this project in an earlier post under “Large Landscaping Project – 2″.  (You can see I have a way with words!)  ;-)

But there’s no way this is anything but eye candy, maintenance intensive (‘fuhgitaboudit’) and an impossible dream to most of us. More than likely, a picture such as this captures most of our hopes in terms of lawn size:

Presenting a gorgeous front and then actually living in the back yard is what so many of my clients have gravitated to. Finding a place to relax and enjoy, away from the madding crowds. And this is where it always gets most interesting to me, personally. Sticking in thematic but novel things such as sculptures, water features, larger patios for entertaining make a yard far more interesting. Here’s the thing -  we can do all these things on a fraction of the watering than we have become accustomed to. Even small spaces, squeezed in on hillsides in a desert climate can yield a terrifically reduced field of interest right off the back deck. The trees here are also lit up at night on the outer perimeter. Watering this place takes a bath a day.

There are lots of options in the water-saving realm of landscaping and design. You can choose any number of remarkably diverse styles and budgets.

I have studied all this pretty assiduously

And my best advice is to make sure you have some fun, work within a budget, and think for yourself – your ideas are still what makes it all go.

Landscape and Garden Design Implications of Water Conservation

I have 500 posts in a blog produced over the past 9 years, making it incredibly easy to forget how many times I have addressed a topic. ;-)

It turns out, after a small audit, I have a dozen or more articles relating to water conservation. In reviewing these, it was almost like playing Pin The Tail On The Donkey choosing which ones to recirculate and why. But topical it remains, this entire water problem, particularly now with corporations buying water rights as a new investment tool, then undoubtedly allocating the supplies which were once free-wheeling and natural to us all. I hope the seriousness with which I view this now-growing problematic situation comes through.

All pictures in this post are of my own designs and installations. I have always felt a personal experience viewpoint delivers a more impactful statement of a subject of any complexity at all, because we can see my own adaptations to the realities, instead of it being some theoretical concept.

Water may well end up as the “new Oil”, in terms of resource value. Understanding this will matter as time goes on, especially Out West in the United States, as well as in countless other climates and continents. This is a recirculated post which – combined with a part 2 – explains how one town deals with landscaping in the midst of water shortages.

With the thought of conserving water borne foremost in mind, what does an unrepentant garden lover do to adjust to the new realities? How do we change the way we design gardens and landscapes? What fundamental changes are required in us to develop gardens in still-beautiful ways when we face so many hard decisions about social responsibility and in such a public way? Let’s face it – as I have said before, landscaping is the “Ultimate Cosmetic”. No one deals with a larger palette.

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What do we do when we find out we have an actual budgeted amount of water use? As absurd as this question may sound, it is the height of design wisdom. Water auditing for existing landscapes and gardens have been and should take place prior to their installation or further development. A sense of how much water we have used in the past should reflect favorably on making changes to lessen them in some very specific ways. The methods are out there and the results for redeveloping existing lawns and gardens as well as for installing future ones can be and should be more than exciting, actually. There is much to learn but it does not have to be anywhere close to disastrous. The fact is, done right, we can literally make things better as opposed to merely settling for some dire end.

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What to do with grass lawns?

In the first place, the primary sponge for water in typical landscapes remains lawns. I have always maintained that cutting down lawn space actually can give a completely new and fresher look to an existing home landscape. While lawns serve a variety of functions, including a place for children to play (perhaps its most important role, IMO), they do not have to be a monolithic presence. Broken up appropriately, over time, a lawn can change into many things, among them an adjunct and contrast to new color and new features. Lawns do not have to be gigantic at all. Inasmuch as their cool characteristics make them so similar to water in a landscape design’s effects, leaving a pool or “lake” of green is wise and refreshing.

Cutting the size down to resemble a feature in their own right can include shaping them to reflect their “semi-aqueous” nature. It can set a lawn apart, actually and thereby take advantage of how glorious colors look as a backdrop to swaths of green.

Grass can be engineered to resemble a literal trail, or pathway. Instead of having a monstrous assembly of grass as a mono-colored foreground, it can lead to interesting places, offering a cool walk in bare feet to inspect the place better. At the same time we find it interesting in form as well as function. The gentle and most inviting curves of a lawn lead the eye on in a wholesome way, appreciating the structure and form of a landscape itself. It’s a bath in cooling and soothing color and texture – the perfect use of grass lawns to a designer.

Lawn grasses have been developed now which send their roots an insane depth, which require far less waterings and are virtually geared to a more responsible water usage. They stay just as green for longer during Summers- in fact, more so than Bluegrass – owing to their drought tolerant natures.

My bottom line is this: so far, I have not cut out the notion of grass lawns, simply because I happen to love them. Admittedly, they should be used far, far less in desert climates – among others – and there is a body of thought that has no need whatsoever for a lawn to make a garden beautiful. In fact, let’s visit some of them now.

How do we replace lawns in design?

This is a huge and interesting subject. It reflects all that is newest in landscaping, from the array and plenitude of hardscaping materials to even water features themselves. I realize how ironic it must seem to proclaim a water feature to be some sort of alternative method of landscaping with less water. But they do. And they do it well, indeed.

Water features recirculate water. Once filled, the same water does the same dance over and over and over – well, you get it. Yes, there can be evaporation loss and, yes, we install automatic fill mechanisms to “top off” the feature once it reaches a certain lowered level. But, even in hot and sun-drenched and hot Nevada, we rarely run a 3/4″ feed pipe more than 2 minutes a day on normal sized features, implying the use of about 30 gallons, or less than a shower a day.

Landscapes whose be-all and end-all in the past was a wide expanse of lawn studded with trees have now become far more complex and interesting. In place of the expensive water-thirsty lawn, we now have “features”, like this water feature and the pretty patio and walkway pictured here. Full of color and shape, the carnival atmosphere lightens the mood yet still provides a consistency of form and function. The ultimate irony of a landscape such as this is that, after figuring the watering costs for a lawn set ion the same place over time, this place will have comparatively paid for itself in three years. After that it is just beauty and money.

The home owner of this place below wanted lawn and nothing else. He owns a car dealership and he listened closely as we explained what the costs of lawns was and where they were headed. As a businessman, he investigated on his own as well, having some thinking fodder to work with. Delighted with his research, he assigned the water feature you see below which he thoroughly and absolutely relishes watching as it rushes along below his patio deck above. Lit up at night, the falls and the creek have phosphorescent appearances at three different falls locations. As with all well-installed features, such as lighting and waterfalls with pumps, it runs off a timer and stops automatically to preserve power. He also served good wine. ;-)

The source:

A different mind set in general accompanies all this increasingly complex designing, now that the monolithic lawn is out of consideration. Suddenly, things like more patio space are entertained. The notion of sculpting the actual land by creating hills and mounds studded with rocks and plants becomes a fascinating alternative, making the entirety of any landscape suddenly more riveting an event. More park-like, less boring, more interesting and livelier by far, suddenly we are actually released to play around a little bit. Art seeps into the equation at about this time and all designers, I bet, can trace the moment of this discovery. It actually gets a bit intimidating, the truth is, because designers become far freer to experiment and to entertain alternatives for the regular folks – instead of just for the wealthy. In fact, it becomes an imperative.

We arrive at features like Bubble Rocks.

We do new things – different things – things like inserting lighting, making vineyards, enlarging patio space and making walking platforms from natural stone – all of which I will show next as we consider what features we deem suitable for a water-conserving regime which retains beauty before all else.

The Ironies Of Desert Landscaping

Water is life. The lessons taught us by the plants and animals who survive and flourish in desert landscapes teach the same lessons to those humans who also choose to live there. Hoarding water, developing retaining and collecting systems and then using the life-giving resource to further life itself are all in the architecture of plants and cities.

The picture below, for example, is the dam which guides the lake water level at Lake Tahoe and which controls the amount of water let loose into the Truckee River which wanders through Reno on its journey to Pyramid Lake.

(dam pictures courtesy of  US Dept. Of The Interior/Reclamation Division)

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Reno, in many ways, is exceptionally fortunate in that the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range runs close by, just on the outskirts of town to the West, in fact. What that means is that the mountains retain a frankly staggering amount of snow almost (!) every year, attributable to jet streams which guide the Hawaiian-induced “Pineapple Express” moist and warm weather patterns  towards the West Coast and then inland. One night accumulations of as much as 12-15 feet are not unknown. A basic snow pack often reaches 200′ in a season. This translates into a store-able source of liquid life. It also produces opportunity, which Reno has taken full advantage of in terms of water storage and availability in its High Desert environment which typically gets a bit over 7 inches of moisture per year. But the reservoirs also provide a huge recreational component for fishing, boating and camping, to say nothing of the attendant golf courses and softball, summer sports facilities.

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The above is the earthen dam at Boca Reservoir. There are a good 4 reservoirs including Lake Tahoe which serve Reno. Each is in excess of 30,000 acre feet, so that’s some serious water.

Drip Irrigation

Adaptable as always, those crafty humans went and helped themselves immensely by maturing a technology of delivering water to plant materials in at a previously inconceivable rate, allowing more or less the exact and proper amount of water to go in evaporation-proof manner, directly to a plant’s roots. Drip irrigation made the scene and has now matured into a technology of vitality in even non-desert applications. Home owners everywhere now can hang baskets served by tiny irrigation lines and delivered at whatever intervals and amounts they choose. Gardens and pots can be serviced with water, even while a gardener goes on a vacation – without involving the neighbors!

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Here – above – is the Reno Automobile Museum, fabulously wealthy Bill Harrah’s stunning collection of cars and a tourist attraction of well-deserved eccentricity and completeness, stuck hard in downtown Reno. My good friend Tom Stille was the Landscape Architect and this picture shows a slightly-compromised view of his style of plantings. Yes, he supplied some sod but it was at the request of the owner, while the rest of the property is very riddled with totally native plantings and boulders. Note that every plant is fed by drip.

Finally – Landscaping Around A Doggone House!

It leads to enormous possibilities in residential applications – bottom line. The other primary ingredient of High Desert life is the Sun. There is quite a bit, sustained, at times almost oppressive. But what it can do for flowers and plants is out of the envelope:

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Fed daily and sometimes even twice a day, the amount of water needed to provide this succulent scene amounts to a couple of baths a day.

And it is much the same with this one below. One of the other key ingredients in designing Desert Landscapes consists of also providing key diversionary elements such as boulders, creeks – even water features – which use little or no water whatsoever. Face it – after filling up, a recirculating water feature such as tops this little man made creation – a mini mountain – uses very little water after the fill.

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This late Fall – early Winter view from another angle of this project reveals the cascade and creek which actually splits and diverts at the second landing. At this time of year, we typically motor down the irrigation as plants go somewhat – but not totally – dormant. But one can still run the water in the waterfalls long past this date.

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Possibly impractical, I guess, but highly-satisfying to home owners are small oases, filled with fish, as yet more life teems around the pool with a vitality fed from underground.

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The possibilities of using stored water effectively have produced a reduction in water by in gardening and agriculture by nearly 30% over the past 10 years. And this was over a period of time which saw the Housing Bubble and people paying for much incredible landscaping work with the ATM purchases their growing appreciation of value allowed at the time. While unfortunate, this reveals my contention far clearer by what resulted from an expanded construction trade but – still – a reduction to such an extent.

Water rules but delivery systems rule more.

The High Desert landscape world has made life of higher quality for those who have taken advantage of it all.

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2 – More on Irrigation and World Wide Use of Water – Then Landscaping

This relatively brief article was posted in 2009. As one can figure, water concerns are huge where the issues, technologies and landscape designs in this post take place – Reno.

In a later post I deliver the general amounts from “water audits” – all the rage out there and an assessment of one home’s water usage, dealing with irrigation and in-home usage from showers, dishwashers and the normal functional scenarios of our everyday existence. It’s sort of shocking.

From this article:

“Raising irrigation water efficiency typically means shifting from the less efficient flood or furrow system to overhead sprinklers or drip irrigation, the gold standard of irrigation efficiency. Switching from flood or furrow to low-pressure sprinkler systems reduces water use by an estimated 30 percent, while switching to drip irrigation typically cuts water use in half. A drip system also raises yields because it provides a steady supply of water with minimal losses to evaporation. Since drip systems are both labor-intensive and water-efficient, they are well suited to countries with a surplus of labor and a shortage of water.

A few small countries—Cyprus, Israel, and Jordan—rely heavily on drip irrigation. Among the big three agricultural producers, this more-efficient technology is used on 1–3 percent of irrigated land in India and China and on roughly 4 percent in the United States.

In recent years, small-scale drip-irrigation systems—virtually a bucket that relies on gravity to distribute the water through flexible plastic tubing—have been developed to irrigate small vegetable gardens with roughly 100 plants (covering 25 square meters). Somewhat larger drum systems irrigate 125 square meters. Large-scale drip systems using plastic lines that can be moved easily are also becoming popular. These simple systems can pay for themselves in one year. By reducing water costs and raising yields, they can dramatically raise incomes of smallholders.”

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Drip irrigation increases the productivity of water usage to more than 70% over the above-listed current standards which apply in surprisingly many places. More importantly, in terms of landscaping, drip irrigation and adaptations of garden and landscape design, alternatives are being sought to limit the more water-hoggish elements of our landscaping past.

One very major beneficiary of attention is obviously the famous “English Model” – great wide expanses of gorgeous and green grass. In the more recent relocation of millions of Americans, for example, to thriving Western cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas and Reno, criticisms of desert towns having monstrous amounts of grass are completely accurate in their condemnation. Inasmuch as these water worries are local, it is even more the case.

Personally, I have prided myself on adhering to some of these tenets, then even enlarging on them. Yes, I have installed large pieces of grass for clients in Reno and in California towns where water is becoming short-handed. I have had my own issues with finding alternatives to grass, personally, especially since I so admire all a great lawn can accomplish in terms of literally changing the micro-climate of weather inside a home’s individual envelope. Grass lawns cool things down; they evaporate, of course, and push moisture into the air in non humid climates; they look fabulous and are fun to walk on, sit on, lay on and play on. And, having said all that, I know lots of dudes who are utterly macho about having “the most killer lawn in the neighborhood”, lol. I do know these men and they are numerous!

This is great for Kentucky, where taking one’s chances on rainfall irrigating such water-intensive stuff can generally be relied on. But, even they are facing some drought conditions which have led to some scary fears. Atlanta, Georgia faces the results of their most recent drought with real existential trepidation. They failed to allow for this possibility in their water-planning and now face huge issues. My point is this – we all have some responsibility in a wiser use of the resource of water.

Let’s Review – This is a Kentucky Highway in an average Summer:

And this is a Nevada Highway:

Big difference.  ;-)   Note the lack of grass in the lower photo.

It would be useless asking Americans or Australians to not want gardens outside their homes. Them would be fighting words, anyway. The notion of beauty and of simple enjoyment is an issue which few would give over to any government body. For another thing, food gardening saves us money and grants us a known fruit or veggie with that famous maximum taste and which grows from fertilizers and nutrients and soils of which we are totally aware. When we bite into a Red Delicious Apple or into some gorgeously rich-tasting Yellow Grape Tomato – or when our asparagus finally makes it onto our tables after a few years of cultivation – we have a product of our own labors and a foodstuff we actually earned and which – by almost any criterion – tastes better than those mass-produced suckers we get from the store, sold by appearance in a small selection of variety.

So where do we all go?  Nevada?

Next, I will show how landscaping is adapting to the newer realities and will provide an explanation of how simple and easy converting to drip irrigation can be. The uses of drip irrigation can surprise us, as well, including automated watering of such things as hanging baskets, containers and raised beds. We will also deal with design issues, such as reducing the lawn square footage and producing beds which can handle shrubs and trees which use a tenth of the water of a lawn.

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