Irrigation pros share how water management plans benefit their businesses and their clients

November 15, 2022 -  By
Pacific Landscape Management works with its clients to develop a water management plan to save money and prevent waste. (Photo: Pacific Landscape Management)

Pacific Landscape Management works with its clients to develop a water management plan to save money and prevent waste. (Photo: Pacific Landscape Management)

Water rates in the Pacific Northwest have more than doubled in the last five years, says David Grover. He says it seems almost contradictory for a region with a rainy season surrounded by inlets, lakes and rivers.

“We’ve even got one water district here in the last five years that’s increased over 300 percent,” says the branch manager with Pacific Landscape Management in the company’s Sherwood, Ore., branch. 

Grover attributes much of this increase in water rates to a growing population and infrastructure projects to meet that demand. What’s happening in the Pacific Northwest mirrors what many landscape contractors experience throughout North America, which in turn, creates a heightened focus on irrigation management.

“The biggest problem in irrigation is most people, if you ask them how much water is used in irrigation, they have no clue,” says Darren Kovacs, COO of ExactET Systems, an irrigation water management company in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. “They can say, ‘We water three days a week.’ But if you start asking them to quantify how much water is used, they don’t know.”

Like the Pacific Northwest, Alberta seems like an unlikely area to face water woes. However, Kovacs says his province took proactive measures to slow down the depletion of the glaciers that feed the waterways in Alberta.

“(Calgary) actually demanded that all irrigation systems beyond residential — multifamily, commercial and institutional — all have to have dedicated irrigation meters,” he says. “What that has done is woken people up to the fact that how much water gets used in irrigation.”

Danny Smith

Danny Smith

Danny Smith, director of water management for Park West Landscape Management in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., is at the heart of the state’s water crisis. Water districts in Southern California deploy a tiered pricing structure. These tiered rates provide a monthly water allocation, Smith says.

“Each water meter would be essentially provided a variable monthly allocation,” he says. “There are tiered rates based on percentages of that allocations. These tiered rate structures are essentially meant to reward those who are employing good water conservation practices and stay within the provided allocation. It’s also meant to penalize those that are not following good water management.”

Where water restrictions intersect with innovation

Grover says the Environmental Protection Agency estimates inefficient irrigation systems waste about 50 percent of irrigation water. He sees effective water management as a three-legged stool: efficient irrigation system design and management, weather-based irrigation programming and an effective system to apply the weather-based data.

For the weather-based irrigation portion, Pacific Landscape Management offers its commercial irrigation, landscape maintenance and construction clients a subscription model for weather-based irrigation management with a Weathermatic system. Instead of upfront investment costs, Grover says clients pay a smaller monthly cost.

“We’ve seen it really take off in the last couple of years since we have offered the subscription model,” he says. “We have somewhere around 550 weather-based controllers out there in our portfolio of work.” 

Darren Kovacs

Darren Kovacs

Pacific Landscape Management also focuses on improving coverage and maximizing water use for existing irrigation systems with tools like Hunter MP Rotators and drip irrigation, Grover says.

“Anywhere we can get water down at the root zone to reduce the amount of evaporation and overspray is a great solution,” he says. “(We’re) just trying to find those areas where drip (irrigation) will help distribute that water more evenly and more effectively.”

Similarly, Kovacs uses Smart Rain’s automated climate-controlled irrigation system to help clients better manage water use and save water. The Smart Rain system matches the soil’s moisture intake with the precipitation rate of the irrigation system. It also uses accurate evapotranspiration, weather data and rainfall information to determine the best time to water.

Kovacs says he also incorporates hydrometers and flow sensors with a master valve that offers automated leak detection. He favors climate-controlled water management coupled with hydrometers over irrigation timers with no leak detection.

“It’s way more important to only water when you need to than water on a timer when you don’t need to,” he says.

Smith says all the technology in the world doesn’t make up for an inefficient system and a lack of technician training.

“You can’t put a smart controller on a dumb system,” he says. “It’s not just about putting the technologies in, but are we installing them correctly? Are we managing them correctly?”

ExactET uses a climate-controlled irrigation system that provides accurate data to determine optimum times to water. (Photo: ExactET)

ExactET uses a climate-controlled irrigation system that provides accurate data to determine optimum times to water. (Photo: ExactET)

Helping clients better manage water use

“We at Park West don’t just install the smart controller and think it’s going to solve the world’s water crisis and move on,” Smith says. “We put together an entire program that takes us from spray head to smart controller and everything in between to make sure that we’re capitalizing on not just the smart control benefits, but every other benefit that goes with that irrigation system.”

Smith says he asks to see a new client’s water bills to understand what type of tiered structure the property falls in. He says that task is a struggle for his clients as accounting departments for commercial properties often handle the bills, and HOA boards and property managers, in some cases, only look for anomalies.

“They might come to realize that, on average, this water bill is running 60 percent of the allocation,” he says. “But then I find out they’ve had a mainline break or a leak on that meter for the last four years, and the actual true baseline that they should be at is 40 percent. That’s what really separates the good water managers from the rest.”

Smith says as he looks over the bill, he ensures the water board assesses the property fairly and eyes areas to improve water use. Park West also performs a full inspection when bringing on a new client.

“We’re able to make those repairs, stop the bleeding and provide some relief during this evaluation, and then put together a long-term strategy with budget, return on investment, rebate potentials — all of that as part of the entire package,” he says.

Experts say training is a critical part of responsible water management. (Photo: Park West)

Experts say training is a critical part of responsible water management. (Photo: Park West)

Pacific Landscape Management offers a water management plan as an additional service. The operation promotes the service through the company’s newsletter and starts a conversation about the service when a client calls an account manager about a high water bill.

Grover says irrigation system evaluations typically begin in the summer, which helps Pacific Landscape Management identify inefficient areas on the property. Following the evaluation, a property manager puts together a plan with a priority list — much like Park West’s — that breaks out easy upgrades and what might be bigger projects. 

Grover says the plan also includes an estimate of water savings from third-party sources and general savings information about the products used in the upgrades. Although Grover acknowledges it’s a challenge to provide clients with solid data on savings as weather changes irrigation needs seasonally and yearly.

“We’ve done some case studies with our weather-based irrigation systems, and we’ve determined, based on four examples, that we did between 2019 and 2020, on average we saved about 34 percent water on those four sites.”

David Grover

David Grover

Pacific Landscape Management’s water savings plan also includes areas to reduce or eliminate turf in parking strips or areas with large trees that compete for water and nutrients.

“We can improve the look of the property while reducing or eliminating water needs in certain areas,” he says. 

Grover says clients see the plan as a road map for their properties.

“It’s not chasing one particular issue on one particular zone,” he says. “It’s looking at the property as a whole and saying, ‘Where are all my opportunities to conserve water?’”

And this is a win-win for Pacific Landscape Management and the client.

“For our business and our industry, if we have a strong focus on water management, we can save our clients’ money without reducing our revenue streams,” he says. 

“Water’s a finite resource. We have a responsibility to manage it and use it wisely.”

Digging into water management

Luke Hawthorne

Luke Hawthorne

Luke Hawthorne, owner of Emerald Lawns in Round Rock, Texas, says 2022 was a year of severe drought for the Austin area. This, coupled with increased demand due to a population boom, led the city of Austin to enact water restrictions that limited outdoor watering to once a week.

Hawthorne says when the area went through a drought about four or five years ago, he decided to deploy Hydretain, a mixture of hygroscopic and humectant components that helps the soil attract moisture. He says Hydretain helped his clients better manage the turfgrass stress that comes with once-a-week watering. He discovered Hydretain after calling a friend of his who is a golf course superintendent.

“He told me they used soil surfactants and products like Hydretain to make the watering more efficient,” Hawthorne says.

An application of Hydretain is an upsell for Emerald Lawns, which sends out informational emails to its 90 percent residential, 10 percent commercial lawn and tree care clientele about the service. Emerald Lawns charges a base price of $72.50 and says it can help lawns absorb 30 to 50 percent more water. Emerald Lawns also amends the soil with a ⅓-inch layer of compost over the turf and a separate application of 1 to 1 ½ inch of topsoil.

“We’re actually adding depth, and then more soil means it can retain more water and the grass is able to have a more robust root system,” Hawthorne says.

Future of irrigation

Smith says a major part of the future of irrigation management is increasing the industry’s professionalism. He says irrigation companies need to make water management a priority and educate the entire staff, including account and branch managers, salespeople and irrigation technicians.

Irrigation professionals use the latest technology to track water savings data on sites with upgrades. (Photo: John Valls)

Irrigation professionals use the latest technology to track water savings data on sites with upgrades. (Photo: John Valls)

“I think the next frontier for landscape companies, whether it’s through the water management standard department standard or not, is certifications,” he says. 

He cites Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor (CLIA), Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper (QWEL) training, recycled water site supervisor training (RWSS) and many others offered by irrigation system manufacturers to raise the bar for responsible water use.

“That’s where the landscape companies can really own and be responsible for their part of water management,” he says.

Grover says he hopes future technology will unlock ways to instantaneously get data and reports on flow meters and systems for existing irrigation installations. He says that’s a big challenge for irrigation systems. Pacific Landscape Management oversees some that are 20 or 30 years old.

“One of the things that we don’t have a lot of visibility into is the raw data of the irrigation use,” he says. “A lot of times, the meter is the same meter servicing the building, and the meter reader goes, they check the meter, get their data and they put it together in a water bill that comes two months later. This information lags quite a bit.” 

Kovacs says the future of irrigation comes down to changing behavior. Things as simple as adding more topsoil or topdressing — like what Emerald Lawns does (see sidebar) — can make a big difference.

“The deeper soil you have, it retains more moisture, which means every time you do water, you have a much greater opportunity to get to the next rain event without having to irrigate at all,” he says.

Kovacs says Oakes, a small town outside of Calgary in Alberta, mandated 8 inches of soil below all turf plantings — which Kovacs said city managers measure — along with two-day-a-week outdoor watering.

“Even at twice a week, those landscapes look fantastic because they have enough soil to retain moisture,” he says. “It’s more or less a do-or-die situation in the long term. If the industry wants to survive, we need to get better at what we do. Water management and a healthy green industry go hand in hand.”

Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the editor of Landscape Management magazine. Known for her immersive approach to travel from coast to coast in her previous stint as senior editor of American Fruit Grower Magazine, she uses social media (Twitter/Instagram @EditorHerrick) to share her experiences on the road with her audience. Herrick has a degree in journalism from Ohio Northern University. She can be reached at

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