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Water conservation in landscaping.

Water Conservation in Landscaping

As much of the nation heads into its second straight year of drought, more and more farsighted real estate developers and managers are recognizing the advantages of including watersaving landscaping in their projects. The drought will eventually end, but it is focusing attention on water conservation issues that have been building for years nationwide - particularly in such high growth/low rainfall areas as the Southwest and California.

Indeed, California is now suffering from its third straight year of drought. As a result, major real estate developers like Mobil Land, Prudential Insurance, and the Irvine Company have planted water-conserving landscaping in their California properties. These projects offer valuable case study lessons to real estate managers and developers in all areas.

As water supplies decrease and water bills increase, water-conservative landscaping will offer developers and property owners and managers considerable savings now and in coming years. But the dollars-and-cents consequences of future water shortages extend far beyond individual developers and property managers. Experts say that if the government, businesses, and citizens do not face up to the looming water problems soon, some areas will become economically less competitive and not reach their full growth potential.

Forecasters also predict that water-wasteful real estate - whether residential or commercial - will not keep pace in value with water-efficient properties, in the same way that gas-guzzling autos have lost out to models with high MPG ratings. Therefore, property owners could face the expense of replacing thirsty landscaping.

What steps are farsighted government and real estate developers taking to avoid these water shortages? Many municipalities, including Los Angeles, are now requiring installation of low-flow showerheads and toilets in new construction and the retrofitting of many older properties. But water experts say 50 percent of residential water usage, and about 5 percent of commercial/industrial usage, is outdoors. Clearly, low-flow showers and toilets are not going to solve the problem entirely; increased attention must be given to landscaping.


Los Angeles, Phoenix, and numerous other cities are now requiring that landscaping plans for major development projects be reviewed for water conservation before approval is granted. For instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power extensively promotes "xeriscaping" - the increasingly common term for landscaping with trees, shrubs, plants, and ground covers that need less water. In some cases, if a new housing development has several model homes, the yard of at least one must be xeriscaped.

Xeriscaping is not just the installation of drought-resistant plants. Nor do xeriscapes require no watering or irrigation systems. Xeriscaping is a mixture of water-conservative and drought-resistant plants with strategically placed plants that do require more water. But most of all, experts say, xeriscaping is an education process that teaches property owners and managers how to water landscaping sensibly, and thereby economically.

Economics are playing an increasingly important role in water conservation. In some municipalities, water utility rate structures are changing, or have changed already, to charge more for excessive usage. But lower water utility bills are not the only savings to developers, property owners, and managers who install water-conservative landscaping.

A study by California's North Marin Water District not only shows sharply contrasting water requirements between traditional and water-conserving landscaping, but also proves startling differences in amounts of labor, fertilizer, herbicides, and fuel used for lawn mowing and clipping removal between these two types of landscapes.

In the state-funded study of townhouse and condominium landscapes maintained by professional landscape contractors, it was found that water-conserving landscapes with about half the amount of turf as the traditional yards required 54 percent less water, 25 percent less labor, 61 percent less fertilizer, 22 percent less herbicide, and 44 percent less fuel to maintain.

Some developers have already discovered those bottom-line reasons for xeriscaping their projects. For example, at its 1762-acre East Highlands Ranch project in San Bernardino County, the Mobil Land Development Corporation is xeriscaping park and open space, which is deeded to the homeowners' association as it is completed.

East Highlands Ranch is a master planned community, begun in 1985. Upon completion in 1995, the development's population is expected to total approximately 16,000 people. About 100 of the development's nearly 1,000 acres of open space are being xeriscaped and deeded to homeowners; the remainder are being left in their natural state and will be deeded to a public or quasi-public agency.

A lawn usually requires an inch to an inch and a half of water per week, in part, because the innumerable blades of grass provide so much surface area for evaporation. With xeriscaping, water use is sharply reduced by eliminating large turf areas and using a palette of native drought-resistant plant materials.

The initial cost of xeriscaping does not differ substantially from traditional landscaping. However, xeriscapes often take longer to establish themselves than landscapes using plants imported from areas with more rainfall, and may require several years to achieve the desired effect.

The massive 2,200-acre Irvine Spectrum office/industrial project in Orange County is another real estate development with a water-conserving landscaping program. In landscaping the median and parkways on both sides of the nearly 12 miles of roadways through the area, the Irvine Company was mindful of different turfs' water consumption and tried to choose species that needed less water.

For both variety and economy, drought-tolerant ground covers such as ice plant and ivy were also used. Drip-type irrigation systems were not installed because of their susceptibility to vandalism and the difficulty of maintenance. Instead, only pop-up sprinklers were installed in the Spectrum project, and tensiometers were strategically placed to register soil water levels to aid in irrigation scheduling. Watering, moreover, occurs at night in order to lessen the evaporation loss.

Eventually, Irvine Spectrum's parkway watering system will be tied into the computer which the Irvine Company gave to the City of Irvine in order to monitor and regulate landscape watering in the roadway median strips. In addition, Irvine Spectrum will be connected in about a year to the local water district's distribution system for water reclaimed from sewage treatment. Irvine Spectrum already has laid the necessary pipes and is waiting for the water district to construct a storage facility before connecting to the system and watering all landscaping with reclaimed water.

In northern California, some experts say the current drought will hit harder because of the region's reliance on winter rainfall and its shortage of reservoirs. Hacienda Business Park in Pleasanton has been built with water shortages and conservation in mind. At this 860-acre project, lawn areas are being landscaped with new varieties of water-conservative grasses. Like the Irvine Spectrum project, the irrigation system will be connected both to a computer for water management and to the local wastewater treatment district for reclaimed water.


A successful water-conservative landscape is the result of cooperation between a client concerned about ecology and economy, a professional landscape designer, a knowledgeable contractor who follows specifications in carrying out the design, and a maintenance team with an understanding of water management.

Water and land development have gone hand-in-hand since time immemorial. Farsighted public officials and private citizens took bold and imaginative steps early on to provide water for the millions of people who have flocked to these regions.

As demand for water increases in the face of continued population growth, supplies of the precious resource are dwindling and prices are sure to rise. As a result, shrewd real estate developers, managers, and owners are looking ahead and installing water-conserving landscaping to ensure that their projects will be economically viable tomorrow.

Roger McErlane is a senior partner of POD, Inc., a landscape architecture and urban design planning firm with offices in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, and San Diego, California.
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Author:McErlane, Roger
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:May 1, 1989
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