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).


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.

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)


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.


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!


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:


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”

(Left click on pictures to enlarge)

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.



General Notes On Irrigation – How We Win The Water War In Our Homes

This is the first of 3 water-centered installments I presented nearly 5 years ago. The current level of attention concerning water has pretty much reached crisis status. And, if it hasn’t, then it simply will. Not just global warming but the provision of water for the planet’s 7.5 billion souls is stretching our ability to cope.

For long years, beginning in the 80’s, solutions were sought for the trade of landscaping alone. Many excellent ideas were produced, as the following posts will address. Naturally, places like California and Arizona who now have sophisticated and long-established (and gorgeous) landscaping achievements, fought this problem earlier than others. As a result many great water-conserving ideas where discovered there including, and probably most importantly improvements in drip irrigation delivery systems.

The very first drip irrigation was – not surprisingly – developed in Israel for purposes of using meager water resources for the fruits and vegetable needs for as growing but arid country. Indeed, their progress and innovations dealing with “desalinization” lead the world at this time – something California is just beginning to invest in – a bit late in the game.

But this gets discussed below. Enjoy.


Irrigation is the process by which we relax and let Man take over the work of God. I realize this sounds dreadfully hyperbolic, but, honestly, it is what it is. If we waited for rain and natural elements to supply our watering needs, we’d soon face the fact that not much would make it. Gardening and landscaping are not like farming in Illinois and Iowa, where somewhat (!!) predictable rainfalls can be relied on to supply us with our liquid energy.

The current concerns of Global Warming and somewhat Apocalyptic thinking also takes issue with general water availability, concerned that we use water in gardens which would be better used elsewhere. I think this fear is undoubtedly a truism. But I do not think it’s remotely applicable, either, perhaps even in particular related to gardening. The Sahara could use more water. The Gobi gets pretty doggone dry. You can downright drown by going outside on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State in the Winter.

Reasonable and very smart people have put themselves at this problem and have concluded numerous things. Some places should worry about water more than others. Some places get abundant water. We are not yet geared for transferring water from British Columbia (which gets too much) to California and Nevada (which, Lord knows, could use more). Nor are places like Atlanta, Georgia properly planned for the drought conditions they recently underwent, finding they had far too few resources in place for collection and storage of water. We so often, as a species, wait until the Worst shows up before dealing proactively with the problems facing our frantic expansion.

Having said that, I marvel at Reno, Nevada’s foresight now and then, with their excellent storage system of reservoirs, catching the always-needed snowmelt. Sure, when the snow is meager, they suffer a bit. But when it is average or better, they pack it in, big time. They also have implemented largely successful water-stretching plans consisting of policing the worst abuses of overwatering and waste and of educating the public about the ways to lessen the need for wasteful water practices, from low-use toilets to shorter showers to smarter plantings in the garden and wiser irrigation practices.

There are other positive developments in water usage – on site storage of rainwater and snow melt by use of catch basins and traps. Grey Water is a most promising area. And then there is common sense –

Water consciousness is a blooming (pardon the pun) field. The term “water auditing” is making its way into our lexicons and is the height of wisdom, especially for those who actually pay for water. It’s like accounting for grocery expenditures – it is a real and present cost, complete with ways of cost-saving – sometimes huge ones.

Irrigation practices have now officially made their way into the limelight as a method of actually saving money. It may seem odd to couple “saving water” with “irrigation” and it does presume that one already waters his yard and garden – there is that. If you have no garden whatsoever, why are you reading this?

But almost anyone reading here has a garden or lawn. We ask ourselves, how we can help and still garden?

Wise irrigation is a booming area. Irrigation companies are awarding big bucks for innovations and for ideas which help limit the wise use of water, including changing plants to more native varieties, changing the delivery systems of the water we use to more efficient ones and changing our senses of design and sustainability in ways which are new, different and actually very exciting. Did you realize, for example, that by changing – say – one half of your lawn to flowers and shrubbery, you can reduce your water costs by 70%? Did you realize there are now systems in place which accurately deliver the precise amount of water needed to plants, with little or zero waste? Did you know that a scrupulous monitoring of water usage based on an audited need can cut water use by up to 90%?


Watering our lawns and gardens were once just taken for granted as much as breathing the air around us. The dang stuff was everywhere!  😉  But times have changed – like everything else. Now we find ourselves searching diligently for methods of changing our ways so that we can not over extend what we once took for granted into some impossible-to-access corner.

I’m going to present a hopefully accessible look at irrigation from a user and installer’s perspective. As a contractor who has specialized in irrigating lawns and plants, I think I hold an interesting perspective from which we can all gain something. Watching the various reactions to the looming water shortages around the globe and here at home, I think I can present ways of maximizing the use of this precious resource while still allowing us to enjoy what means so much to us all – a good garden.