National Drinking Water Clearinghouse
West Virginia University
PO Box 6893
Morgantown, WV


by Amy Vickers
Water Resources
Consultant and Author

“Face it, you have more important things to do with water than put it on a lawn,” Lawn Care for Dummies (Lance Walheim, Hungry Minds: New York, 1998)

With warm weather months and accompanying increased water demands upon us, now is the time to implement water conservation measures—particularly those focused on seasonal uses, such as lawn watering. Many western and some eastern regions are still experiencing drought or its residual impacts, such as reduced water supplies and lower water quality. Whether your water system is in drought, drought recovery, or simply needs to clamp down on water waste, here are a few conservation steps adapted from my book, Handbook of Water Use and Conservation:

1. Communicate this year’s water budget to the public; talk about conservation early.

Conservation directives are more likely to be heeded if heard early and often. Explain your system’s water supply status to the public and whether or not they need to be on a water budget to trim wasteful use. How much can your system safely stretch to accommodate anticipated demands this summer, and how much does it need in storage to withstand a drought or other emergency? How full are your reservoirs, rivers, and aquifers, and will this season’s demands allow them to continue to provide a sustainable yield? Has your system updated its requirements for supply reserves in light of necessary security steps and contingency planning?

Most adults intuitively understand the need to live on a budget, particularly when it comes to limited resources, such as money and time. In today’s world, the public also can understand that water is a limited liquid asset that treatment systems and their customers must budget. Another benefit of trimming water waste is increased community security. Utilities that maintain stable and reliable supplies are better equipped to meet emergency needs, such as for fire, hazardous material emergencies, and terrorist events. Respon-sible water managers never want to be caught water short.

2. Clarify the difference between water “wants” and water “needs.”
This is true particularly when it comes to discretionary uses, such as lawn irrigation that can quickly drain water supplies. Yes, America has ample supplies to meet at least our basic drinking, sanitary, municipal, industrial, and agricultural water needs. No, we do not have unlimited water to satisfy unreasonable consumer desires, such as the extreme water use that automatic irrigation systems demand to maintain a green lawn throughout a summer. The refrain from one of Mick Jagger’s most popular songs applies to water, too: “You can’t always get what you want. But, you get what you need.” (Consider adding this song to your play list for customer service calls placed on hold.)

Unfortunately, too many water managers succumb to the pressures of a demanding public—particularly when they are affluent—whose landscape water use skyrocketed in recent years. Businesses that sell the perfect-looking landscape indirectly tax local water supplies, yet they bear none of its burdens. Herbicide and pesticide residues in drinking water, eutrophication of water bodies from excessive fertilizer use and runoff, and dry rivers are just some of the damaging impacts from over-irrigation and conventional commercial lawn care. Just because some people want a perfect green lawn, no matter how hot and dry it is, does not mean that water managers should accommodate them, even when customers are willing to pay the price excessive use incurs.

Water utilities are a community’s water steward. It is up to water managers—not public whim and landscape contractors—to affirm and enforce a community’s water ethic.

3. Establish sensible lawn watering guidelines or rules.
These guidelines should be based on local climate, available water supplies, and your service area’s conservation goals, among other factors. When it comes to conservation-oriented outdoor watering rules, what makes sense will vary by community. Ardent lawn waterers with automatic irrigation systems tend to be among the worst abusive users who drive peak demands. These people are a priority for conservation education. Avoid odd/even watering schedules because they may reduce your peak demands but increase your total demands. (“If this is my day to water, then I better turn on the hose or else I’ll miss my chance.”)

My general view is that watering should be allowed twice per week (at the most), preferably only once a week, with a maximum run time of no more than 30 minutes per irrigated area. That allotment should be sufficient to keep most lawns healthy. If that seems unrealistic because you have a lawn in a desert or other grass-hostile environment, then your problem is not water. Most lawn diseases and pest problems are from over-watering, not under-watering.

Remember, it is normal for many turf grasses to go dormant and turn brown during the summer months. In most instances, brown lawns and patches are not dead; the roots are alive. Grass blades typically green up during the spring and fall growth spurts. I do not agree with the belief that a long, deep soak via a hose is good for lawns: the practice encourages shallow roots and ignores the fact that rainfall periodically provides deep-root moisture that grass can access for survival during drought. What if a drought does occur? It’s only nature saying, “Go with my flow and accommodate accordingly.”

4. Promote native and drought-tolerant grasses and plants to save water and reduce landscape chemical loads.

A growing movement among landscape and horticultural professionals promotes turf and plant species that are native or naturally adaptive (excluding invasives). The natural landscaping approach may offer more profound water savings |and other benefits than the Xeriscape™ principles. Organizations, such as the Wild Ones Natural Landscapers and the Ecological Landscaping Association, advocate a new and closer relationship between people and the natural world through restoration of the native plant and wildlife environment in your own backyard. Further, they encourage natural irrigation, less lawn, and less mowing. But they discourage synthetic chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that can harm the environment and pose health risks.

Lawn and landscape chemicals are finding their way into our drinking water through pathways, such as storm water run-off and infiltration. Americans apply 10 times as much chemicals on lawns as we do on our agricultural lands. Reducing these burdens while saving water offers a healthier relationship with the environment than we’ve had in the past. Ultimately, we drink what we put on our lawns so it behooves us to think twice before applying chemicals that may later flow in our bloodstreams.

5. Sound the water conservation-pricing signal.

At the least, establish an inclining block-rate structure that encourages conservation among all user groups, particularly during peak-demand months. Important note: water savings from conservation need not result in revenue losses. Early on, estimate the demand reductions that your system will realize from its conservation pricing structure and related measures so that rates can be adjusted accordingly to avoid revenue losses.

Establishing a reserve revenue account can also help buffer revenue fluctuations from conservation. If a conservation rate structure is designed properly, customers who conserve water should not see an increase in the cost of their water bill (i.e., rates go up, but use goes down so it’s a wash). Because water savings result in reduced utility energy and chemical operating costs, even with higher rates, some customer water bills may actually go down slightly due to marginal cost savings.

6. Reducing your system’s unaccounted-for water (UFW) shows the public that you are a model of water efficiency.
The American Water Works Assoc-iation’s recommended goal for water losses and leaks is 10 percent. What’s yours? Many U.S. water systems report UFW rates from 15 to 25 percent, an obvious one-stop source for water-waste recovery at every utility’s doorstep.
Don’t have the budget to fix your high water loss and leakage problem? Remember, fixing customer meter errors typically results in increased revenues; going after that problem first will boost your income and help pay for the other leaks and waste that need fixing in your system. If your water loss and leakage rate is high, start addressing the problem now before a regulator, community group, or reporter finds out about this neglected problem, and your system becomes the local poster child for water waste.

7. Promote how the whole system benefits from sustainable water use and living.
It’s practically impossible to pick up a newspaper or turn on the news without hearing a story about water. More and more people are concerned about water issues because talk of water shortage or scarcity deeply threatens our sense of security: we have a primal need for water that must be satisfied. Water managers and environmental leaders can mobilize that fear and refocus it in productive ways, such as educating people to connect the dots between what’s happening with their water systems (both in terms of quantity and quality) and the ways in which they conduct their lives at home, school, and work.

Do the people living in your community know that reducing chemical use in the home and yard will help keep their drinking water cleaner and safer and thereby promote better personal health? How many businesses and industries in your service area are using water-efficient equipment and practices that will not only save water but also reduce their energy costs and pollution outputs? Are your town’s schools, libraries, and government buildings implementing at least the water efficiency components of the new Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design® (LEED) Program sponsored by the U.S. Green Building Council? Your conservation actions can reach out and transform not only your water system, but also every life that it serves.

Abut the Author
Amy Vickers is president of Amy Vickers & Associates, Inc., in Amherst, Massachusetts, an engineer, and author of the award-winning Handbook of Water Use and Conservation: Homes, Landscapes, Businesses, Industries, Farms (WaterPlow Press, 2001, ISBN 1-931579-07-5, Vickers consults with water systems, municipalities, businesses, government agencies, and other organizations about conservation projects across the U.S., Canada, and overseas. She can be reached at