A fairly deep subject (pardon the dry [oops!] humor), water has become a major issue over the past decade. Recent droughts have affected many of us lately. Rising population places greater demand on this finite resource and will affect us all ……… sooner than we may think. As more people consume more water for basic needs there will be less available for non-essential uses ……… such as watering your lawn.
In 1992 the first definitive book on xeriscaping was published. Entitled simply Xeriscape Gardening the book outlines seven basic principles that can be used to reduce the water needs of any landscape regardless of average rainfall or the lack thereof. In short these principles involve:
1. Planning & Design
2. Soil analysis
3. Reducing lawn areas
4. Proper plant selection
5. Efficient irrigation
7. Appropriate maintenance
During that same time period I was fortunate enough to attend a seminar given by one of the authors, Doug Welsh (PhD, TX A&M). During his lecture Dr. Welsh made the dire prediction that Texas could surpass its fresh water resources by the year 2025 (give or take a few years). I’m certain this prediction was based upon the current population growth rate and per capita use plus the freshwater availability at that time. Using this as an educated guess, it would stand to reason that if we are to continue to show positive growth then we must conserve our fresh water resources to meet our future needs.
A more current study and subsequent recommendations were done in 2002 by the Texas Water Development Board and can be accessed on the web at twdb.state.tx.us. This latest study outlines a long-range plan for fresh water consumption through 2050. However, this report did state that in order to meet essential needs of city dwellers, agriculture use would have to be drastically reduced before 2030, which seems to concur with the statement made by Dr. Welsh over a decade ago. Also the 2002 report repeatedly stresses that extended drought is the wild card that could change all these well researched facts and figures in a hurry. Some of us are seeing evidence of this right now. As far as outdoor use by the private citizens, the state’s position so far has been to leave those decisions up to city governments. That could change.
Outdoor uses include landscaping as well as washing cars, filling swimming pools, hosing down the kids, etc. The bulk of our outdoor water use does go to landscaping and is estimated to comprise a whopping 50 to 60 per cent of our fresh water consumption. From this we can easily see that reducing the water used in traditional landscaping and irrigation trends will go a long way towards extending our current resources into the future. The only problem with this is educating the public and using various incentives to encourage xeriscape techniques.
Until recently the our municipal boards, committees, and councils felt that the only way to get the general public to conserve water was to raise the rates. This attitude does work especially when you consider that higher rates do result in more revenue to repair and upgrade existing systems, but as far as the homeowner is concerned rate hikes mainly effect lower and middle income families. Meanwhile the upper income folks may complain but will continue to water as they see fit since they can afford to. This sets a poor example since we all aspire to do what the wealthy folks do when (or if) we can afford it. Wasting water is not ever a good idea regardless of affordability.
Lately we have seen cities in Texas develop new strategies to promote water conservation among their citizens. Key among these are public education and incentives such as rebates or lower rates for those willing to convert old spray head systems to drip for example. Some cities employ state certified water auditors to monitor municipal systems and consult the private sector. Most of our larger communities have passed ordinances to promote water conservation. These ordinances may require retrofitting old controllers with rain or moisture sensors, limiting the amount of runoff from any given location, requiring that spray heads be directed away from hard surfaces such as concrete, and some that permanently limit the time of day or day of the week (or both) that outside irrigation can be done. If need be, these ordinances can carry a stiff fine to ensure compliance. However these type ordinances have proven hard to enforce due to lack of manpower and funding.
Of course the best case scenario that could offset any further restriction of our private access to water would be if we as concerned (perhaps I should say intelligent) citizens would take it upon ourselves to conserve this most vital resource. This is where public outreach and example plays a vital role. Before asking or requiring the general public to conserve water the city (state and federal as well) government should set the example by upgrading all public landscaping. Old irrigation systems should be retrofitted. Frivolous high water/high maintenance plantings should be replaced with local native or very well adapted plants. Water guzzling plants and obsolete irrigation systems can be replaced as funds become available. Meanwhile an aggressive public education campaign using any and all available media to bring attention to these changes will get private citizens interested and active (regardless of income or social status, in fact some of the more “well to do“ are usually the first to follow political motivation).
Again going back to the early 1990’s we find that Texas was among the first in the U.S. to adopt a xeriscape law. This law was originally written by state representatives John Hirschi (Wichita Falls) and Carlos Truan (Corpus Christi). The law itself carries no enforcement code or penalty but is instead a directive that suggests that all state properties should adopt the principles of xeriscaping and use mainly native plants for landscaping. Our law also encourages Texas municipalities to follow suit. A similar directive at the federal level was passed during the Clinton administration. These laws can now be amended and if need be, strengthened to conserve our water resources.
Right now most of us in Texas are still in the grip of record breaking heat and below average rainfall. At present much of our state needs more than a foot of rainfall to make up for the deficit of last fall and winter (driest on record) followed by yet another dry spring. Had we listened to the voice of our concerned politicians, board and committee members, or educated members of the scientific community twenty years ago we would have had higher lake levels and more stored groundwater going into this drought. I think it’s ironic that during a drought and subsequent water shortage, people will get active and begin to conserve water. Yet the more important time for public awareness is when the lakes are full and rainfall abundant. Droughts are inevitable, for the most part unpredictable, and beyond our control, but it is best to have our water reservoirs brim full when dry weather sets in. Therefore water conservation should be an issue for all times, not just dry times. If we conserve during times of plenty we can expect to have more water when we really need it. Unfortunately our current history shows that we tend to waste water as long as it is available and affordable only to have to tighten our belts when the rain doesn’t fall right. As our population increases, our water supply decreases. It’s just that simple.
Gardeners can and should play a major role in preparing for a future in which every drop of fresh water will have a much greater value. First we need to educate ourselves on the best plant choices, latest irrigation techniques, water collection, and water recycling. Then we must set the right example by using what we learn and by conserving water at all times. Finally we must then play an active role in educating our friends and neighbors plus doing our share by supporting environmentally sound decision making (especially at the local level where our voting has the greatest impact). If we don’t, then we face an uncertain future where poor decisions and policies made by consumer driven demand may leave us high and dry. Do what you can right now to stretch our current resources so we all can have our share of fresh water and a bright future for many years to come.