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Water Use Faces Uphill Conservation Challenges Across California

How to save water and landscaping management costs - Tips from Dennis Pittenger, UC Riverside

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View of Southern California coast via NASA satellite.

Landscaping Solutions for Water Conservation

  • Plants are often over-watered, causing wasted water as well as diseased or sickly plants
  • One of the largest conservation opportunities is reducing turf grass – replace with woody plants
  • Optimizing your irrigation system can save 20-40% of your water use...
  • Changing turf species can save another 20%.
  • Reclaimed water is the current strategy for large conservation impact.
  • Water management strategy maintains quality and reduces water consumption

Water Conservation Strategies

California has been battling water demands for 15 years and our water supply has remained flat even with an increase in population. However, many of the easy conservation tactics have now been implemented! And the population is continuing to grow. The future will require tougher water policies to keep pace with population demands. Climate changes could also reduce the water supply.

Agricultural land management of wetlands.

How much water do we use?
Statewide, 75-80% of water is used in agricultural production.
15% is used in urban areas and landscape irrigation is only 5-10% of the total.

Landscape Water Conservation

Most water in SoCal is used in urban areas and the region has the lowest use per person of anywhere in the state. Landscape conservation will help maintain the quality of landscaping and the quality of life that has developed in the region, as well as environmental quality.

Dennis Pittenger, UC-Riverside Area Environmental Horticulture Advisor gives us a tough reminder. 50 to 70% of all water used is used outdoors! Those figures vary by coastal or desert location, but what remains is the possibility for reductions that can be achieved with good management.

Proper Species Selection Can Save Water, Plant Survival and Labor

“Many plant materials can be maintained on 15% to 50% less water than currently provided. Plants are often over-watered, causing wasted water as well as diseased or sickly plants,” Dennis points out.

Reduce Turf Grass

One of the largest conservation opportunities is reducing turf grass to just the areas most needed. But more important than area is species. In Southern California it’s important to select a WARM SEASON species of grass: Zoysia, Bermuda, and St. Augustine are common. The cool season grasses such as tall fescue drink 20-30% more water than their warm season cousins.

Select Woody Plants

Woody plants are another great choice. Many maintain appeal and function on less water than turf grasses…with the exception of warm season grasses. Add to that selection, drip irrigation and you really save water and money!

Zone Control of Irrigation

Irrigation controlled by zones allows you to treat each set of shrubs and trees by different sets of valves. When established, trees draw sufficient water from nature, and trees provide additional benefits of shade and sculptural beauty.

SoCal benefits from seasonally adjusted irrigation schedules.

  • Peak demands are in June, July and August.
  • Minimal demands are November – February.
  • To obtain “reference evapotranspiration” (ETo) calculated from sensor readings provided by over 100 weather stations throughout California, go to A reference number is provided by geographic area.

    Save 20-40% of Water with Optimized Irrigation System

    "Optimizing your irrigation system can save 20-40% of your water use, depending how bad the starting point is. Changing turf species can save another 20%," Dennis explains.

    The benefits of green plants are cooling through transpiration, cleansing of the air, and studies have shown that greenscaping has an impact on people’s mental well-being. Emotional and psychological well being is affected by having active time outside. The economic impact of tourism is also sizable, and affecte4d by landscaping. Recreational use of green space is widespread and the most voracious users of irrigation are sports turf and golf.

    Reclaimed Water for Irrigation

    Reclaimed water is the current strategy for large conservation impact. Availability of reclaimed water for irrigation is growing for sports applications. Two major players in this water conservation strategy are LA Department of Water and Power and the San Diego County Water Authority.

    Innovations for Large-Scale Water Conservation

    Automated irrigation controllers provide programming capabilities that gauge weather conditions and apply water according to a calculated response. This could be a real tool – but not a silver bullet. Not all systems are equally effective and they still require a person to know the right amount of water for each specific plant. They must be monitored, but once set up, can function mostly on their own.

    Traditional Conservation Methods

    Mulching is still a highly productive conservation strategy. Any organic material such as bark or composted green waste can be applied from 2-4” around plantings. This reduces water evaporation from the surface. It doesn’t change the amount of water used by the plant, but a thick layer of mulch reduces loss from evaporation. With mulch you won’t have to irrigate as often. That reduces both water consumption and labor costs.

    The key issue is to adjust water management strategy. By expecting landscape managers to conserve, you can use a performance contract to reduce water use with an economic incentive. Set standards to maintain the acceptable plant appearance and function, but make judicious use of water.

    Are you ready for the next "Seven-Year Drought Cycle"?

    Manage for THIS Drought and Plan Ahead for the Next Drought

    Our water supply is in jeopardy. The supply could well be significantly reduced based on pressure from political arenas and pressure from the environmental community. And publics that landscape use a lot of water. Unless water resources are used wisely, regulations will come down to restrict usage to minimal amounts.

    Are you ready for the next "Seven-Year Drought Cycle"? Probably not. The best business strategy is to go into the mode of reducing water use beforehand to prevent shock to your landscape.

    The three top impact areas:
    Selective species. Reduce water use. Use reclaimed water.

    Agricultural Use of Water

    Agriculture in Southern California is producing very high value crops and water is very expensive compared to other parts of the state. Most farmers are very well versed in conservation practices. Nursery production, cut flowers, fresh vegetables, citrus and avocado, and strawberries – all provide high return on the investment.

    AB 2717 Mandates Landscape Water Conservation Compliance

    California legislative AB 2717 provides for a task force to look at landscape water changes and requirements for landscape contractor certification. The goal is to develop a certification program by the end of 2007.


    California Landscape Contractors Association
    CLCL ( ) members directory help with landscape management strategy

    California Integrated Waste Management Board
    CIWMB ( is a great resource for recycling information both for businesses and residential

    UC Agriculture and Natural Resources

    Cooperative Extension

    Find your County Extension Offices:

    County-based cooperative extension centers help with specific information on landscape maintenance issues and advice for best practices and techniques. they are especially helpful in providing a bigger picture of water quality and watershed management issues.

    Center for Landscape and Urban Horticulture

    Weed Research & Information Center

    Environmental Horticulture Research and Information Center, Department of Plant Sciences

    Edited by Carolyn Allen
    | irrigation | water conservation | drought |


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