Defeating the drought

February 3, 2014 -  By

One of the big challenges facing the future of the landscaping industry is water. Or more precisely, the lack of water.

The western United States is facing drought conditions that range from abnormally dry to exceptional drought, according to the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. (See map.)

For example, drought conditions are so bad in parts of California they are breaking records dating back to the 1880s.

This current drought follows severe droughts in Texas in 2010-2011 and the Midwest in 2012.

But the recent droughts are not an unusual phenomenon. Texas, which has a typically dry climate to start with, experienced a seven-year drought in the 1950s.

Moreover, the eastern U.S. is not exempt from drought conditions. In 2002, the eastern coastal states–from Pennsylvania to northern Florida—experienced severe to extreme drought conditions.

We all know what happens to our industry when a drought hits. Homeowners and commercial enterprises stop investing in their landscapes, state and local governments impose watering bans and business grinds to a halt while everyone hunkers down and waits for the rains to return. And they unusually do, at some point.

But adding to the water availability problems that periodic drought conditions cause is the inadequate, deteriorating public water infrastructure in our country. In the eastern U.S. much of the public water supply infrastructure is more than 100 years old. Some cities even have wooden water pipes still in service.

In the faster growing areas of the country, meaning the west and southwest, the problem is compounded by a naturally scarce water supply. The expansion of public water supply infrastructure has not kept pace with the growth in many of these areas.

In a recent study, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identified a $500 billion shortfall in public drinking water infrastructure in the U.S. by 2020.

In the Green Industry we rely on an adequate supply of water, either from Mother Nature or from public drinking water systems. But that supply is increasingly under pressure.

So what do we do to keep our industry healthy in a drier, parched environment?

Minimize water use

First, we must learn how to do what we do in ways that minimize water use, especially from public drinking water supplies. Public drinking water is becoming increasingly expensive and your clients are not going to want to maintain a landscape that drives up their water bills or looks bad when it doesn’t get the irrigated water it demands.

Landscape designs are going to require that water use be a key consideration in plant selection, landscape topography and conservation of natural rain water. Consider the types of plant communities that fare well in the natural environment near your project and take your cues for design from them. If you do, your project will look like a continuation of the natural environment, rather than something alien.

Think ‘smart’ irrigation

Second, if you must use irrigation in your design, be sure it’s “smart” irrigation. Gone are the days when we could cover sidewalks and driveways with water that was delivered regardless of weather conditions or plant requirements.

Many local governments now are requiring irrigation systems to be smart, with up-to-the-second weather data and site conditions continuously fed into the system so it delivers just enough water for plant health and not a drop more.

In hand with this effort, EPA now certifies smart irrigation controllers through its WaterSense program, a voluntary program that sets water conserving design specifications for most devices that use water, from toilets to irrigation controllers.

Research regulations

Third, find out what your state and local government regulations are regarding drought emergencies and irrigation. Develop a business plan to put into effect when a drought hits. For example, you could help your clients by providing a drought maintenance plan. What plants can be sacrificed and replaced, which need water as you are able within the drought regulations to maintain them?

In Pennsylvania, hand watering is permitted with a bucket or hose during a drought. Some of our landscape contractors offered this as a service to their clients during the 2002 drought.

Get involved

Last, get involved with the regulatory agency that drafts the drought and irrigation regulations. Do this before there is a drought, when tempers and stress levels are not as high. Too often, public officials don’t see the value in preserving a landscape during a drought, and landscapes are often first on the list to be denied water as “non-essential.” You will need to educate them on the benefits of green plants in the environment.

Your state landscape and nursery association often can be a significant help in navigating the shoals of drought and irrigation regulations. Get in touch with them and find out how they can help you and you can help them.

Because if you are not already in a drought, one is coming…

About the Author:

Gregg Robertson, Landscape Management's government relations blogger, is a government relations consultant for the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association (PLNA) and president of Conewago Ventures. From 2002 until May 2013 he served as president of PLNA. Reach him at

1 Comment on "Defeating the drought"

Trackback | Comments RSS Feed