As you drive through a typical neighborhood in Central Texas, it may not occur to you that you are passing acres of turf that are irrigated by potable water. Many of us have grown accustomed to the manicured patches of lawn that surround our homes, but few of us have given thought to why it’s there. Is it for appearance? Function? How much does it cost to maintain? How does it impact our natural resources?
In Texas, we like our cars and we like our lawns. But as the drought worsens, water restrictions grow tighter, and water prices increase, the traditional residential landscape seems less practical. In the summer, homeowners are left feeling squeezed between having an attractive landscape, adhering to water usage rules, and protecting their pocketbooks. This stress extends to all levels in the community – from the developer who wants to maintain marketability, to the homeowner’s association charged with maintaining value, to the water utility whose responsibility it is to plan for water usage on a large scale.
Big Picture – Small Focus
In order to grasp the cumulative effect of residential irrigation, let us first consider the individual home. For example, let’s imagine a home that occupies ¼ of an acre, or about 10,000 square feet. About half of that space is utilized for the home’s foundation and other impervious areas such as sidewalks and patios. Of the remaining 5,000 square feet, about 75% of that is turf (3,750 square feet). Based on this number, a community of 1,000 homes has approximately 37.5 million square feet of turf – the equivalent of approximately 90 acres.
In today’s water-sensitive political climate, any new development seeking a permit to irrigate approximately 90 acres of turf would draw serious criticism – especially if those 90 acres were only intended to be used occasionally, like our lawns. Many homeowners have sections of lawn that remain unused for the most part – whether it is a side yard or front lawn, these sections often exist for aesthetic purposes rather than functional ones. These low-use, high-visibility areas are great candidates for turf reduction and conservation landscaping.
Conservation Landscaping: More than just Cactus and Weeds
Also known as xeriscaping, conservation landscaping can significantly reduce the amount of water required to maintain an outdoor space. But there are many common misconceptions about xeriscapic landscapes, most of which result from a misunderstanding of their purpose and function. Conservation landscaping does not necessarily have to mean rock-filled yards with sparse plantings of exotic cacti, yucca, and agave. It also does not have to take the shape of a wild, fuzzy, untamed mess of weeds and wildflowers. When designed properly, xeriscapic or conservation landscapes can be just as beautiful as a typical lawn, creating formal and informal spaces in which to enjoy a multitude of activities.
Progress on the Home Front
Recently, Central Texas municipalities have begun to take on residential watering in a more direct way. Earlier this month, the City of Georgetown passed a landscape and irrigation ordinance in an effort to reduce per capita water usage from 218 to 160 gallons per person per day. Part of this will be accomplished by reducing the amount of turf grass allowed and implementing a soil depth requirement for landscaped areas. Soil depth is key to maintaining the health of turf between infrequent waterings. The deeper the soil, the longer the turn can go between waterings before stressing or drying. A 6” depth is recommended and is part of the development code in several Central Texas municipalities.
Though sustainable commercial landscape design guidelines are widely used and have resulted in reduced water consumption for these types of developments, guidelines for residential developments have lagged behind. At RVi, we have joined in an effort with the Lower Colorado River Authority, the Home Builders Association, the design community, and multiple local municipalities to begin crafting landscape standards for residential developments. The goal of these standards is to provide a sorely needed set of guidelines for residential developments that meet the ecological, economic, and aesthetic needs of all stakeholders and can be applied in many different counties and municipalities across Central Texas.
As Landscape Architects and stewards of our natural resources, it is incumbent upon us to continually lower the impact of development in hopes of creating a more sustainable environment for the future.