Water Conservation and Irrigation Methods
Why do we need to worry about water conservation here in Utah, there is plenty of snow in the mountains!!? This is a question that I have heard multiple times. To fully understand why we need to worry about conservation, even here in Utah, we need to understand about the water cycle and where we get our water. This is going to be a longer than normal blog, so if you get bored easily, or if you just want to see the solutions, scroll to the end of this blog.
Where does Utah’s water come from and why is anyone concerned about our supply? With everything we must worry about today, why do we need to add water to the list? We turn on our taps and our sprinklers and water is there. Our reservoirs are mostly full, and we have snow in the mountains almost every year. Looking at Utah’s verdant valleys and mountains it is hard to understand that we live in a desert. Many of us look to the beautiful mountains to the east, here in Utah, and visualize an abundance of water.
The truth is that Utah is the 2nd driest state in the United States, second only to Nevada. We get an average of 23” of water falling from the sky in the form of both snow and rain each year. New Mexico and Arizona both get more precipitation than Utah. If we do not count the snowfall, we get an average of 12” of rain. Arizona gets 13” and New Mexico gets 14” of rain. Snowfall is a difficult measure of how much water we have to use. Snowfall recharges our under-ground aquifers and fills our reservoirs through run off if we have a cool spring that allows it to be absorbed into our aquifers and slowly channeled into our reservoirs throughout the summer. If we have a heavy snowfall and a warm spring, or even an average snowfall and warm spring, most of that water either evaporates or gets channeled into the Great Salt Lake Basin.
Keep in mind the numbers I have quoted are averages. Utah has been in a drought (abnormally dry conditions) since 2011 that was only broken for the year of 2017 and 2019. Droughts are not a rare occurrence in Utah. Utah goes through cycles of plenty and drought when it comes to water. Here is the link to a website that shows some of those cycles https://pubs.usgs.gov/fs/fs-037-03/.
Several of the cities in Utah County have had issues with their secondary water supplies due to broken equipment, over use and greatly reduced supplies. Each city in Utah County gets their water from their own local sources. If those sources do not have enough supply due to snow fall in that particular area, they end up needing to buy water from other sources, such as Orem Metropolitan Water District. Pleasant Grove has had the issue of their tanks being drained dry several times a week. Each time the tank gets near the bottom, sediment is drawn into the system and sent to its resident’s properties. In 2018, Alpine city ran the risk of running out of secondary water because it did not have enough water in its watershed to supply its resident’s needs for the full year at the rates the residents were using it. They also had a broken tank that further reduced the supply available. Both these cities have suffered from pressure problems due to supply and demand. Other cities are facing the same type of issues. Here is a news story from 2018 about Salt Lake County’s water supply issues https://www.sltrib.com/news/politics/2018/07/25/utah-cities-facing-water/.
Despite how dry Utah is, we do have enough water to supply our needs. Our water shortages are caused mostly by overuse, as are most water shortages across our planet. If we think about how we utilize our water and use it carefully in both abundant years and years of drought, we will have all the water we need. We do not have to give up beautiful landscapes and convert them to “zeroscapes” to conserve water. Here are some ways we can accomplish both goals.
The forward-thinking people at Jordan River Water Conservancy District came up with a wonderful idea to have beautiful landscapes and conserve water and called it Localscapes. Here is a link to their website. https://localscapes.com/. A yard that is centered around the Localscape concepts follows 5 steps https://localscapes.com/whatisalocalscape:
1. A Localscape is centered around a central open shape. That can be a lawn, ground cover, mulch, rocks, or whatever you would like it to be. If it is a lawn the benefit is that it is much easier to design an efficient irrigation system for it and it is easier to mow. If you need a lawn area for kids and pets to play on, make this area only the size you will need it. If it is just for looks, adjust the size accordingly.
2. Plan your gathering areas (sitting, picnic, etc) around the outside of your lawn. This makes it easier to mow the lawn and keeps sitting areas dry and keeps them from weathering due to too much contact with irrigation water.
3. Activity areas such as pools, play sets, trampolines, basketball courts and gardens do not need to be surrounded by lawn.
4. Don’t create paths with lawn, including side yards. Paths made of stone, gravel or concrete do not need to be irrigated. A lot of water is wasted trying to irrigate narrow areas.
5. Once you have planned your open areas, gathering areas, activity areas and paths, fill in the rest of your landscape with beautiful, drought tolerant trees, shrubs and plants. These can be just as vibrant and beautiful as more water loving plants. Irrigate them with drip irrigation and mulch the whole area to conserve water and suppress weeds. My next blog will focus on drought tolerant plants that work well in Utah and their care.
If you do not have the money or time to change out your water thirsty landscapes in the next few months, here are some things you can do to reduce water usage in the landscape that you have now.
1. Use mulch in all your planting beds. Mulch keeps the soil cooler and reduces water evaporation. Your plants will be healthier, and you will reduce water usage.
2. Check your irrigation system for broken pipes, broken heads, dirty irrigation filters, and dirty nozzle filters. Adjust your heads to make sure you are getting the right coverage. Check your clocks to make sure they are programmed correctly and are following your area’s water restriction guide lines. Each city has their own watering schedule for residents.
3. Use tough love on your lawn. Grass roots are a lot like people and tend to go no further than they need to in order get the water and nourishment they need. If you water frequently and to a shallower depth, your lawn roots will be shorter than they should be. Once we hit the heat of summer, those roots will not be able to reach water deeper in the soil and your lawn will dry out quicker than if the roots were able to access water deeper in the soil. Do not turn on your water in the spring until the lawn starts to look dry and then water infrequently and deeply. This causes the roots to go deeper into the soil profile looking for water. Do the same thing in fall. Reduce the amount and the frequency of watering to cause roots to search for water before they go dormant. Drought stressing your lawn in the spring and fall will build healthier, deeper roots and will reduce the amount of water you need to keep a green healthy lawn in the heat of the summer.
4. Keep your lawn mowed to 3” tall. If you mow your lawn too short, the roots will also shorten. Generally speaking, grass roots will mirror the length of the grass blade.
5. Fertilize correctly. Fertilizing a lawn too much or too little will lead to a weak and stressed lawn.
Here are pictures of a lawn, with Kentucky Blue Grass, in Alpine, that follows these principles. This home owner only waters 2 times per week, and each station waters from 25 to 35 minutes per station. They fertilize 4 times per year and keep the lawn mowed no shorter than 3” tall. They rigorously drought stress their lawn in the spring and fall. Sometimes they do not start watering until the beginning of June, depending on rainfall.
If you have any questions, would like to schedule a consultation, or would like to take the plunge and see what a water efficient design would look like for your yard, call us at 801-899-6166. We would love to help you.