Notes from the field

Saving Texas Water One Landscape at a Time

07/31/2014

Saving Texas Water One Landscape at a Time

By Patrick Dickinson, Program Coordinator, Texas A&M AgriLife Research

Without water there is no life. As an educator I have the opportunity to observe urban water use at the field level through projects, classes, and everyday life. Inspiring innovations are being created, but we still face many tough challenges in the realm of water-efficiency and conservation, especially here in Texas.

By 2060, the population of Texas will have grown from 21 million (in 2000) to 54 million people, according to EPA projections.  Roughly 86 percent of the population will live in urban areas, putting significant stress on the existing supply of natural resources and requiring us to rethink how we utilize those resources. This conversation is especially important when it comes to water: not only will demand for water increase as the population grows, but, by 2060, the Texas water supply will decrease from 17.8 million acre feet to 14.6 million acre feet.  Millions of lives depend on how well Texas manages its water both present and future.  

Here at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas, where I am an educator and researcher, we have the opportunity to observe, discuss, and study urban water management practices and at multiple levels. We work diligently to improve the efficiency of water use by educating the frontline: the average urban citizen. Our research has found that one of the most significant arenas for water savings interventions is via strategic landscaping at the household level.  While this seems like a straightforward target, I am frequently impressed by the pervasive lack of ba­sic knowledge about the relationship between plants and water.  Paradoxically, while Texas landscapes are often blamed for the severe water situation in our state, I have never seen a plant turn on a faucet. Instead, homeowners are doing so – and at alarming rates: during the summer, the EPA estimates anywhere from 30-70% of residential water use is applied to the landscape.  

Here, a little knowledge can go a long way toward conservation. Many homeowners, multi-family unit residents, and even business owners are astoundingly unfamiliar with how to operate their irrigations systems, let alone how to operate them efficiently. While these technologies can reduce time and effort for property owners, the long-term costs of improper utilization are very high. We routinely see sprinkler systems that overspray, pouring water into the storm drains, streets, or sidewalks and providing no targeted benefit to the plants themselves. Needless to say, education about how to operate these irrigation systems efficiently is urgently needed. 

Our goal among the Urban Water Team at Texas A&M AgriLife is to ensure that as many audiences as possible are educated and informed on the proper, most efficient ways to irrigate their landscapes. We make presentations to diverse audiences, including schools, municipalities, corporations, and homeowners’ associations, among others. Our work in the community also provides the opportunity to do simulations and create sample designs of how ideal landscapes could look.

For example, The Urban Water Team has assembled two live demonstrations as teaching tools on the A&M campus to help us demonstrate ways to stop the aggressive overwatering of Texas landscapes.  In March 2013, we opened North Texas’ first WaterSense labeled home in partnership with the EPA Region 6 and Dallas Water Utilities.  Since the grand opening, the team has welcomed thousands of visitors to tour the 1,700-square foot single-family home and learn hands-on how they can help save Texas’s water by implementing their own water-efficiency initiatives.  The interior of the home is equipped with EPA WaterSense labeled fixtures such as bathroom toilets, faucets, showerheads, and a hot water on demand system.  This hot water system provides a particularly compelling demonstration of what property-owners can do to help stall the looming urban water crisis. A small, easily-hidden device, the system provides hot water to the end user within roughly 5 seconds, eliminating the need to run the tap for minutes on end while waiting for hot water with which to shower or wash one's hands. Multiplied over the course of a year, this can save significant water, money, and time - a fact that is not lost on our visitors.

Furthermore, our landscape showcases potential plant selection by utilizing native and adaptive plant material as well as drought tolerant turfgrass and pervious surfaces.  Visitors can see how the area operates via drip irrigation and multi-stream rotor nozzles to dispense precisely the amount of water required. All of this is operated off of a 1,000-gallon rainwater-harvesting cistern that services the 6800 sq. ft. area of landscaping and lawn.  

Indeed, our team estimates the water savings (inside and outside of the home) to be as high as 40 percent for the average North Texas single-family home.  On the 1-year anniversary of the WaterSense Labeled Home, the Urban Water Team opened two multi-family apartments on the A&M campus.  The two apartments are awaiting their WaterSense label from the EPA, and will be used to demonstrate to local property managers, developers, and builders of multi-family communities how they can help save Texas’s water through multiple approaches.  In August, members of the team will be taking the message abroad to Brisbane Australia while they present their WaterSense project at the International Horticultural Congress. We anticipate that the team will return with innovative Australian water-efficiency initiatives to share with the US community, furthering the much-needed conversation on strategic urban water use in the years to come.

Keywords:

water efficiency, water conservation, urban water use, landscape, xeriscape, Texas water, EPA WaterSense

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of Johns Hopkins University or the Johns Hopkins University Global Water Program.