Water Conservation Trends: Sustainable Water Management

Photo: Thinkstock
Photo: Thinkstock

By Dave Hanson
Published in the October 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

For many reasons, reducing water waste is a top priority for leading companies that own and operate their corporate facilities. Dwindling resources, rising water rates, and new regulatory compliances are just a few of the many reasons facility managers (fms) are finding ways to handle this particular challenge.

Those fms tasked with building new corporate campuses or involved in the operation of existing facilities shouldn’t avoid embracing advanced irrigation or treatment techniques, because adopting trending technology early on may save money for them down the road.

Sustainable Water Practices

Smart water management programs can help facilities operate at peak efficiency at all times. Since the price of water is rising every year—a trend not expected to slow any time soon—it is essential for fms to get a handle on some of the latest strategies available to them.

An integrated approach to sustainability water usage achieves a number of important goals for organizations. First, conservation can lead to reduced costs and smaller environmental footprints, thus illustrating how going green can be about saving money—not just about spending it. Second, an integrated approach may help to align sustainable and financial objectives for some organizations.

Operating facilities in today’s economic climate requires fms who truly know how to squeeze every last unnecessary dollar from the budget. Fortunately, managing water use more efficiently can make a significant positive impact on a bottom line.

The pursuit of sustainability has become a shared concern for fms and landscape professionals to achieve best outcomes. The result of this collaborative effort is that landscape contractors and fms now communicate with greater regularity to achieve water management, conservation, and plant health goals. Fms are now beginning to recognize the long-term benefits of a more holistic approach.

Sustainable water management practices can do more than simply conserve resources. They can improve plant health, prevent water damage to roads and sidewalks, and help safeguard precious natural resources.

Storm Water Management

Increasingly, water and conservation are becoming synonymous with smart landscape planning. As a result, a new addition to the mix of considerations is storm water management.

Professionals involved in the design and planning process can avoid landscapes that are costly and difficult to maintain. At the same time, they can enhance an fm’s ability to manage and treat storm water on the property.

Any landscape undergoing extensive rework typically involves professionals who understand aesthetic appeal. By including members of the groundskeeping team in the design process, fms can receive input about post-installation cost impacts and address any potential long-term maintenance problems while still delivering the desired quality and curb appeal.

This strategy will allow fms to allocate the proper budget and establish an installation time frame that is in line with expectations. In doing so, conflicts can be reduced and value engineering can be introduced earlier—which could positively impact the facilities operating bottom line.

Trending Techniques

New, smart landscaping technology is making its way to market. One of the latest trends is improved irrigation systems that incorporate “intelligent” or ET (Evapo-transpiration) controllers.

ET controllers are Internet enabled, centralized systems that eliminate landscape irrigation water waste and achieve savings. These devices adjust watering times based on actual weather conditions—less when cloudy and cool, more when warmer and drier—thereby establishing more efficient usage patterns. ET programs have been known to save more than 180 million gallons of water annually.

Regardless of the situation, a major component of the landscape plan today involves managing water with repairs or upgrades to irrigation systems. Other water saving measures include:

  • Installing grids of inline drip irrigation in place of spray heads on small landscape areas.
  • Removing decorative turf and replacing it with turf on which people sit or play.
  • Incorporating storm water retention areas or bioswales to mitigate runoff, manage and treat water better, and recharge ground water.

Wise water management choices come about as a result of fms looking at each element of a landscape first and determining how much water is needed for each. Hydrozoning might be one solution, since plants with similar water requirements are grouped together on the same irrigation valve.

Another example might be a smart irrigation plan, which can be designed to include large areas with high volume, high output spray heads to water turf areas or shrubs. It can also accommodate ornamentals that require a drip or bubbler system, so water application is controlled. Fms should explore design changes that will reduce the amount of water needed in existing landscapes—whether that means adding bubblers around trees or installing an ET controller or moisture sensors to manage water.

Obstacle Courses

Fms must address turf challenges as well. Many managers have eliminated the turf around mowing obstacles (such as sign posts, lights, under groves of trees, meters and backflows) placed in the middle of a turf area. These often narrow turf areas and acute angles make mowing and irrigation more difficult.

Under these circumstances, irrigation is often laid out without taking into account elevation changes, thus resulting in too much water down slope and too little water upslope. To ensure proper irrigation once plants mature, the system must be designed and adjusted so the heads pop up higher than the plants, which means that the heads, plant placement, and plant growth must be considered together.

Trees planted in turf areas tend to interfere with mowing and even more importantly, often grow poorly. It is better to plant trees in turf free groves with their own irrigation valve.

Today’s water conservation measures typically include the use of recycled water for irrigation. An unintended consequence of using recycled water is that it contains heavy metals and salts that may negatively impact the original potable water dependent landscape. As a result, the facility may be required to change its plant palette over time to adjust to recycled water usage.

Fms can save time or significant expense later if they plan for this up front. This allows managers to examine the total cost of ownership (including understanding how many resources are required) and the ongoing cost to maintain the landscape properly.

Ideally, the plan can minimize inputs such as water, fertilizer, pesticides, and even fuel for equipment and trucks. Additional savings can be realized by minimizing output, including such items as green waste and other debris as well as water runoff by way of treatment systems.

The Value Of Bioswales

Bioswales or on-site storm water quality treatment systems are increasing in priority and popularity as a technique for a facility to achieve a more sustainable landscape and manage storm water runoff. Fms must examine the reasons and challenges of incorporating them on a site in order to realize the value of this type of water quality systems.

Traditional urban development uses underground pipes and large detention facilities that do not necessarily maintain or restore the integrity of riparian habitats. Low impact development (LID) techniques such as bioswales work to decrease the quantity of impervious surface on the site, remove pollutants from runoff, and increase infiltration of storm water directly back into the ground. The benefit of this approach is a reduction in the volume of flow off the site and a decrease in the need for maintenance of the municipal storm water system.

By incorporating simple landscape solutions, these easily identifiable challenges to water management, conservation, and treatment can be mitigated. Fms can achieve positive economic results, as well.

The landscape may not be the first place a manager looks to find efficiencies and savings, but it is an area in which a strategic plan can being called upon to help meet financial objectives. Working to achieve corporate sustainability goals may also protect and preserve precious natural resources, meet regulatory compliances, and result in more positive opinions about a company.

Hanson is a senior vice president at ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance. For more than 40 years, he has been involved in all aspects of landscape maintenance including horticultural and technical services.