Adapting to drought conditions


How Cleary Bros. Landscape helps clients save water and adapt to drought conditions.

Drought hit California hard in 2012 and continues to plague the state. While the worst of it seems to be over, Martin Cleary says it’s a time that most residents won’t soon forget.

“The drought persisted for five years, so it’s pretty much burned into everybody’s memory,” says the president of Cleary Bros. Landscape, in Danville, Calif., which has been serving the Bay Area since 1987. “Now when people think of their landscape, they think of water. They are synonymous, at least here in California.”

Fortunately, water management is something Cleary Bros. Landscape has been practicing and promoting for decades. So, the company was well prepared for the changes that needed to be made once water became such a limited resource. The $17.3-million company offers a menu of services that can reduce clients’ water usage by an average of 30 percent while maintaining attractive, healthy landscapes. The company serves a mostly commercial and municipal clientele, doing 47 percent mowing and maintenance, 13 percent irrigation, 13 percent tree care, 14 percent enhancements and 13 percent design/build services.

“All of our customers want to save water either because it’s the right thing to do, it’s financially what they have to do or they were mandated to by the water agencies,” says Cleary, who became a certified water auditor through the Irrigation Association in 1994. “It’s very politically incorrect right now to have a broad, deep-green lawn in California.”

Spreading the word

While his clients wanted to save water, Cleary says most of them simply didn’t know where to start when the drought reached its peak, comparing them to “deer in headlights.” With three California Landscape Contractors Association-certified water managers and two certified water auditors on staff, the company began having conversations and educating clients about the different things they could do to reduce how much water it takes to have a healthy lawn and landscape. Cleary says they also utilized marketing materials and social media to help inform customers.

“A lot of customers, particularly the (homeowners associations), were not sure what to do, so there was a bit of a panic,” he says. “We started giving people information and having conversations with them to let them know what their options are to have healthy landscapes that are less thirsty.”

The company also stressed the importance of smart water management to its staff and crews. In 2012, it launched an internal marketing campaign to drive home the importance of being a water-conscious company. Employee newsletters always contain information about smart water use. Crew members are publicly praised for practicing smart water management. Each maintenance and irrigation truck is plastered with laminated sheets stressing the importance of saving water. Of the 21 points on the company’s quality assurance inspection performed after each maintenance job, at least five of them are water-related.

“We knew if we weren’t aggressive about it we were going to have problems,” Cleary says. “In maintenance, there is so much repetition that people would start doing things a certain way and it would be hard to change those habits.”

“We were trying to brainwash our guys into saving water,” he adds with a laugh. “And it’s worked.”

These efforts have paid off in more ways than one. The company’s proven track record of smart water use helped them secure new business, as customers looked for contractors who could not only save water but also save them money as the price of water increases.

“We saw a lot of maintenance contracts go out to bid around 2012 because of water concerns,” Cleary says. “We picked up about 30 accounts, most of which said saving water was one of their top-three drivers for choosing another contractor.”

Steps to saving

When Cleary Bros. Landscape takes on a new account, an irrigation team is sent to assess the property. Within 90 days, the company presents the client an overview of the property, called a “takeover report,” which includes a list of ways the company can reduce the account’s water use. Cleary also provides the client a study that shows each option’s return on investment. From there, clients can choose what steps they’d like to take. The company also works with each client to create a multiyear plan to reduce water use in phases.

“Plans can be made for either irrigation upgrades, turf conversions, replacing older plants with drought-tolerant varieties, tree preservation or any combination of these,” Cleary says. “If there are budgetary constraints, we will focus on the things that have the most impact. But taking an integrated approach to everything tends to be the most effective.”

Cleary says reducing the amount of turf on a client’s property is the most effective way to cut back on water use.

“Lawns use the most water in your landscape,” Cleary says. “Converting turf areas to low-water-use areas has the biggest impact because turf is thirsty.”

Cleary says it’s equally important to evaluate the property’s current sprinkler system, making sure it runs as efficiently as possible and incorporating new technologies in controllers, sprinkler heads, nozzles and controllers wherever possible. Cleary Bros. Landscape checks its clients’ irrigation systems regularly at no charge and also monitors their water meters, making sure water—and money—is not being wasted.

The company pays close attention to the plants it incorporates into landscapes, plant placement and mulching. It also mitigates drought stress on trees by using growth regulators, which stimulate fine root hair growth for better water and nutrient uptake.

“Most of our upgrade and enhancement work is either entirely or partially aimed at reducing water,” Cleary says. “We’re not putting in lawns right now.”

As the state’s infrastructure continues to be stretched and water costs continue to rise, Cleary says smart water practices are here to stay.

“The rules of the game have changed,” Cleary says. “Water is a much bigger piece of it now, and it’s always going to be that way.”

Photos: Cleary Bros. Landscape

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