Why Should You Care About Irrigation?

I’m recycling a series of posts I made a few years ago about irrigation and the situation we are nearing regarding the world’s water sources and usage. Increased urbanization has produced an enormous thirst, world-wide, which, combined with Climate Change, are taxing us more severely than I believe we realize.

Irrigation offers something of a help in water conservation, but the greatest thing we can all do is to learn more about our role in saving water in a very general way.

Well, if you are not one of the millions of people who live in water-challenged environments, then maybe you shouldn’t. Know this, however: Water is the kind of thing wars get fought over. Right now, for example, Turkey has built a virtual TVA system on the Euphrates which has led to their control of the water that runs into Iraq and which produced extremely opulent vineyards and agricultural development which were once the wonder of the Ancient World. A drought has since occurred, meaning the rationing of this water tends to go to Turkish interests first. The result for Iraqi’s is less water, fewer crops, angry farmers and a new plague of snakes – and vipers at that, looking for homes. I could go on with current tales of tensions mounting over water issues elsewhere, too.

Here at home, much of my landscaping, living in Reno, Nevada, dealt with making this picture: (click any image to enlarge)

And this:

Into this result:

And this:

The lawn in the picture was insisted upon – as are lawns elsewhere. There is a turf farm lobby and fervent advocating for lawns in desert areas which is meeting some fierce resistance from common sense. While the arguments tend to stay political – and almost stupid in their simplicity and lack of insight – it is true that lawns are water-hogging enterprises. For my money, this is not to say they are not ever a lovely addition to a landscape. They are desirable in any number of a wide variety of ways – including cooling a place down in the Summer heat and providing some moisture for the air. I have always advocated a piece of lawn if the design was crying for it. But we no longer need massive swaths of lawns ala’ the English Model for the homes we decorate up out West. I have come to using lawns more for walkways in strips which make them special for barefoot walking and enjoying the green soothing effect. Besides, lawns are a lot of work!

Here in the United States, we face the same deal. Expansion to Sun Belt areas means a growing population using fewer and fewer water resources. Australia is another region who faces absolutely similar situations. Just like all other adjustment made apparent by our expanding populations – such as social benefits like rapid transit and skyscrapers – we will need to adjust yet again, but this time to a resource which we have always taken for granted. We have historically, in other words, undervalued water.

Acting responsibly at home just makes it easier on everyone when the hammer comes down. Using drip irrigation instead of bulk water-powering spray heads is just one way to save water for the crowd around us. Limiting our design to exclude humongous patches of lawn is another. Believe me, there are plenty of other ways to provide livable and gorgeous surroundings, even in a desert or semi-desert.

Irrigation provides the predictable measure of water spent on watering our precious landscapes and gardens. Its predictability and its accuracy are the keys here. Ill-aimed lawn nozzles can waste water egregiously, sending it down the street in a useless waste. But accurately-aimed lawn nozzles can efficiently water our lawns using less than half of the water we’d use applying an oscillating sprayer from our hoses. Watering a veggie garden by hand might just be the most wasteful utility of them all. A drip system will water the roots only, without evaporation or waste, providing healthier plants with an absolute minimum of wastage.

Providing the wide range of effects and tools now available to landscapers and designers can even result in crowds clamoring to see what all the buzz is at a well-lit up home. Notice this picture below how I am literally never without friends!

Anyway, adjusting we are doing. Irrigation companies now offer bonuses to those with ideas that lead to water saving technologies. This is “doing it right” and it also takes from plumbing (no pun intended) 😉 the many ingenious people among the general population for great ideas. In a sense, every small bit contributes to the overall whole. Smart landscaping and gardening persons are taking this all to heart. Being ahead of the curve in anticipating looming water problems might be one of the easiest calls ever. And, for sure, the stress of water-shortages has not hit with what will eventually be its full power.

3 – My Take On Drip Irrigation – And Some Water Math

Which picture below is the landscape that has irrigation? One of these pictures is irrigated by buried pipe and the other has no irrigation supply whatsoever.

This?  (click all images to enlarge)

Or this?

If you answered the second picture, you would be correct. The top picture – from Vancouver, British Columbia – is from a project we did many years ago, obviously, which has performed spectacularly and grown thanks to the local climate – which is quite wet.

The second picture is from Reno, Nevada – smack in the middle of the Great Basin high desert and not quite a year old yet at the time of this picture. It is very irrigated, by means of buried pipes in the ground and small emitters which produce a designated amount of water to each individual plant. One thing about planting stuff in Reno is that, if somehow the watering regime is not right, you will find out fast! A pounding and relentless Sun mixes with an utter lack of humidity to expose any deficiencies pretty much immediately. For the record, here are later looks at that project, 2 years later:

This latter property is completely irrigated. Yes, as time has gone on, additional emitters were added, adding marginally to the water bill. Many times and in many places, this is the case, especially in neighborhoods such as this which were subdivisions, completely terraformed by excavators and bulldozers to conform to planned needs. Other places in this dry region where drip is used – in, say, homes built on more established existing soils, sometimes the drip irrigation merely acts to get roots to a water table which literally takes over from there. In these cases, the irrigation system, at least for trees and for many plants, can take a hike.

Here is a picture of what a project looks like during the course of installing drip irrigation:

Notice the black pipe coursing throughout the plantings. Eventually, it will be buried, as will the smaller distribution tubes that carry a certain pre-allocated amount of water to the roots of the trees and plants. One can actually determine precisely how much water is used over a period of time by use of these regulated devices. Put on a time clock, we can say, for example, that this group of plants has 200 different plants on it. Of these, the trees will have 3 – two gallon per hour (GPH)* – emitters apiece. Otherwise, the plants themselves will have one 2 GPH emitter apiece. (Note: some of the smaller ones will actually have 1 GPH emitters).

If we run it for a half hour, our 40 trees and 160 plants will need a total of:

(Trees- 40 x 6/2 = 120 gallons and the Plants – 160 x 2 / 2 = 160 gallons. Total = 280 gallons of water).

Inasmuch as this big project had some 4 planting zones of a similar make up, we can see that it would use around 1,000 gallons of water per day.

A Caveat: (Once again, this is a 5 acre project, somewhat densely planted. Yes, it must be nice! Bear in mind, for this guy, he had his own well, too, so much of his water went literally right back down into his own water table.)

For the project above this one, where we compared irrigation versus non-irrigation, the numbers for one zone listed here apply to the entire yard. So what is 280 gallons? How does it compare to our daily uses of water, per se?

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)

As can be seen, the “hardship” of water can be lessened by the proper use of the right irrigation materials. Put another way, if you let a hose run, it puts out around 8-12 gallons a minute. If you have your garden hose running for an hour, watering plants and trees, you will have used 2-3 times what that drip irrigation system supplied to all those plants and trees. The equivalent to using the drip system for 40 trees and 160 plants is to taking 2 baths, flushing 6 times, washing 2 loads of clothes and running the dishwasher.

Now, grass is thirstier. The project below had 12 sprinkler heads using 2 gallons each per minute. They often ran it for upwards of 10 minutes. Just this lawn alone, therefore, used 240 gallons a day! And that’s when they only watered it once. (Many times, they ran it twice.)

They asked us for a method of keeping some lawn but cutting down costs of watering. By using alternative materials instead of lawn, such as brick pavers and by creating planting beds, we were able to save them substantial watering costs. For one thing, we used low trajectory nozzles on their sprinkler heads which minimized how much sprayed water was lost due to wind – in Reno, this is a concern. For another, we placed them in better spots and used a nozzle that has been developed which uses less water in general, yet still delivers to the exact spots they are designed for. What we ended up with was a landscape which cost them 2/3 less money on watering and yet still had some lawn. Here it is:

Any more, we consistently convert what once were huge swaths of grass into more manageable and less water-hogging landscapes. What is most bizarre about the entire scenario is how friendly one can get towards plants and flowers and – frankly – how much more interesting they can be, done right. Irony of ironies, I suppose, even installing a water feature using water recycled by a pump can reduce a water bill.

There are design rules which have also adapted to the new realities surrounding watering shortages and wiser use of this precious resource. That’s what I will address next.