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Prepare NOW for water restrictions!  October 14, 2005

New England is often considered a “water-rich” region which, under normal conditions, generally receives between 40 and 50 inches of precipitation annually. The last few years have not seen normal precipitation and many of us have endured water restrictions put in place in our towns. What is happening with our water resources and what should we, as community association members, do about it?

There is a plethora of resources available on water resources, drought and drought management, but pardon the pun, it’s all a little dry. While drought management may not be interesting reading, the impact on us one day will be significant because we will be asked (demanded) to participate by our town Water Commissioners. The unfortunate part of it is that the participation required will be mandatory and immediate. If you have no community plan for water management, then participation will be simple and sudden abstinence.

There has been an increased interest in drilling wells as a solution to the high price of water from municipal sources and as a way to avoid the water restrictions. There is a mistaken assumption that wells will not be controlled by the water restrictions put in place by the town. The Guide to Lawn and Landscape Water Conservation developed by the Mass Water Resources Commission (www.mass.gov/envir) cautions the reader that while private wells may reduce the strain on public systems, they still draw from the same aquifer. Look forward to more towns including private wells in their water management plans.

The Massachusetts Drought Management Plan (www.mass.gov/envir) suggests five “Action Levels” related to drought conditions. They are: 1)Normal, 2)Advisory, 3)Watch, 4)Warning and 5)Emergency. These action levels will be used at the town level by the Water Commissioners to determine water restrictions for the town. Here in Massachusetts, it seems that there are three generally accepted stages of curtailment; 1)odd/even watering, 2)restricted hours of watering and 3)no watering. I have read in several publications that odd/even watering really doesn’t conserve water, it just redistributes the load on the public supplies. One study in California found that odd/even rules actually increased water consumption because people made sure they watered on their day whether they needed it or not!
Your association needs to develop a plan which positions the association to be prepared for the restrictions imposed. This mainly entails adopting a water conservation plan suitable to the association. The plan will most certainly center around the irrigation system. Chances are incredibly high that your existing irrigation system is currently over watering your turf area. The sprinklers only need to replace the moisture that is removed from the soil. While this seems simple enough, the reality is that a small percentage of irrigated properties replace the appropriate amount of water.

The Water Management Committee of The Irrigation Association (www.irrigation.org) has published Turf and Landscape Irrigation Best Management Practices. They maintain that “Best Management Practices is economical, practical and sustainable, and maintains a healthy, functional landscape without exceeding the water requirements of the landscape.” Best Management Practice #5 is to “Manage the Irrigation System to Respond to the Changing Requirement for Water in the Landscape.” Managing the irrigation system includes three essential steps which form the basis of a good water conservation plan.

The first step is to perform an Irrigation Audit (also recommended by Mass Drought Plan and the Mass Guide to Water Conservation mentioned earlier). The audit checks the system for flow rates and coverage pattern. Many systems which have been installed for several years have sprinkler heads on the same zone that deliver different flow rates. This happens when a head fails and is replaced. The flow rate of the replacement head was not verified to match the other heads in the zone. While this may not sound serious, in order for the whole lawn to receive the minimum amount of water to keep it functional and healthy, each head must deliver water at the same rate. This problem is masked by the over watering technique. While some of the heads may deliver two gallons per minute and others three, if you run the zone long enough for the two gallon heads to be effective, then the area covered by the three gallon heads is over watered.

The second step is to tune up the system based on the results of the Irrigation Audit. Get all the heads in each zone to deliver the same water flow rate. Get the heads adjusted so that all turf areas receive the same amount of water per minute. The control clock can then be set to have all zones deliver the appropriate amount of water per zone. Mulched beds require a different amount of water than does the turf. Heavily shaded turf requires less water than openly sunny areas. These characteristics are all documented by the Irrigation Audit and the base water schedule for each zone is set from this input.

The last step is to actually adjust the irrigation schedule based on the amount of water that is removed from the soil. If rain and irrigation systems put water into the soil, then evaporation and transpiration (water loss through plant material) take water out of the soil. This water loss is call Evapotranspiration or ET for short and is measured by an Atmometer. ET is the amount of water that must be replaced by either rainfall or an irrigation system. Apply water beyond ET and you waste it, either through evaporation, runoff or percolation through the soil.

Many irrigation controllers sold today have a built in ET adjustment. If the irrigation audit determined that 20 minutes for zone 1 and 30 minutes for zone 2 were the base time, then the controller could be set for 80% (16 minutes and 24 minutes respectively) by one simple adjustment based on ET experience. In fact, many controllers can now be remotely controlled by a computer. This is where the real water management gets done. By regularly adjusting the cycle times, the appropriate amount of water is replenished and the plants perform at their optimum. Most irrigation systems are adjusted two maybe three times per season whereas, in reality, they should be changed weekly based on ET experience.

Most properties would benefit from better water management and the water usage is almost guaranteed to go down. And by replacing only the lost water, water intervals can be stretched and water cycle times will generally go down. This is all good news to the local water commissioners and good news for your landscape too.

Water management is complicated but there is a lot of reference material available. Visit the web sites mentioned in this article and also visit the UMASS Extension Service site at www.umassdroughtinfo.org. These sites will provide useful information and many links to other interesting sites. Then build your plan on how to conserve water and improve the landscape at your community association. Be ready when water restrictions are imposed!


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