Increasing your returns through water conservation

The golf-course greenskeeper historically never lost his job because the turf was too green from overwatering," remarked a regional representative from the Irrigation Association in 1992, speaking at a Puget Sound, Wash., seminar. "But," he added, "that will change soon." Six years later, his prediction rings true. No longer can you irrigate without concern for the costs. Water is expensive. And, even in "rainier" areas of the country, such as the Pacific Northwest, a golf course can easily use 1 million gallons of water per week during peak season, which adds up fast.

As a result, it's not uncommon to find a superintendent using a radio-connected central-control system (costing as much as $30,000 in upfront costs) operated from a laptop computer (a $3,000 investment). He uses this elaborate system to make minor schedule and water-application adjustments after downloading weather information, reviewing flow readings, consulting soil-moisture-sensor readings and reviewing mowing schedules. Though his changes are minor, they have a dramatic impact on the costs of growing--and the success of--his course's turf.

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Because of these types of new technology and increasing costs, the job description of today's superintendent looks very different from that for a 1992 greenskeeper position. Today's superintendent needs more math, computer and financialexperience, as well as a turf-management and horticulture background. Chances are that today's superintendent participates in a financial-incentive program based on meeting an established annual water-cost budget as a major part of his or her annual salary and bonus package. If your job description doesn't match this one fairly closely, consider rewriting it. After all, what I've just described is the actual description of a greenskeeper position at a public golf course in my area--one with the lowest greens fees and the highest number of golf rounds.

Welcome, then, to the 21st century--doing more with less but getting better results through water-conservation techniques. Let's look at equipment and industry cost trends, plus a plan for water and labor cost savings, to help your course move into the next millennium.

Conservation is here--at what cost? Pick up nearly any recently published irrigation product-supplier catalog and compare it to a catalog from the same company 5 years ago. What do you see? Chances are the 1997-98 catalog uses terms such as "water conservation," "recycled" and even "environmental" to describe many of the major products and systems the firm sells or distributes. It uses these terms as a sales tool to market everything from irrigation spray heads to soil amendments.

Today's water-conservation irrigation products may be priced higher than standard models sold by your irrigation manufacturer for years. With the higher price tag, are they cost-effective? Probably. Here are three reasons why:

* Lower demand for high-water-use products. Want proof? Ask your distributors if they sell more irrigation equipment with added spray-control and leak-proof features today than they did 5 years ago. Their answer will be yes, because most irrigation authorities now consider the "standard" equipment to be higher water users. If prices are the same, you definitely should specify or buy the lower-water-use product.

* Life-cycle costs. If the low-water-use product costs a little more than a standard product, consider other factors to sway you to its purchase. For example, remember that the standard product will cost you more with each monthly water bill. Personally, we have had a 15- to 40-percent water-bill increase for 2 years in a row in the Seattle area since 1992. Thus, I always consider how many months it will take to pay for the higher-priced low-water-use product in monthly savings over the lower-priced, high-water-use version.

* The manufacturers' "recovery" costs. An irrigation manufacturer needs profits to stay in business, just like everybody else. Charging a higher price on new low-water-use technology means the manufacturer can recover its one-time research costs in developing that new product. Part of current-year manufacturer profits then are available for future-year research and development for even better conservation technology.

Should we pay higher costs for water-saving products? The unfortunate answer is yes, for the reasons cited previously. Should our clients and property owners pay more? Yes, although you may have to help a site owner do some analysis to prove the new technology and efficiency will pay off.

Water-saving basics Five years ago, new-planting losses due to overwatering was a big problem at some sites. Contractors budgeted 5 to 15 percent for plant replacements in large-project bids. Today, we can deliver total quality care that includes a more accurate application of water to plants. As a result, projects that I've recently designed experience only 1 to 2 percent plant replacements because we've largely eliminated overwatering.

In addition, turf managers are saving other costs, too, from incorporating the newer irrigation technologies. For example, maintenance contractors who win annual contracts on large sites (400+ acres in planting/irrigation) are learning that water savings through central-control systems also reduce fertilizer costs. How? The application of less water or lower water rates may help keep nutrients in contact with plant roots longer, before fertilizer is lost to subsurface, below-the-root-zone leaching. So less water means les s fertilizer. In addition, a landscape-maintenance company usually can benefit from marketing the intangible aspect of environmental responsibility.

Surviving the change to conservation Landscape professionals have asked me how to successfully budget for conservation. Begin with the purchase of a water-conserving irrigation system, which can save water and labor. Next, figure out where you are on the curve--that is, you have to know how best to describe your future water-use plans based on your past water-use record (how much water you used in the last year, what you used 5 years ago, etc.). Let's say you are the superintendent of the golf course described earlier that has the fantastic central-control system (installed 5 years ago). How do you describe your water savings today to your management and owners?

You'll need to determine your return on investment (ROI). So, imagine that your course spent $30,000 on water 5 years ago. After you installed the new system, you saved 70 percent of your labor and water costs after the first year's use--about a $21,000 annual savings. If you saved $21,000 every year, you have fully recovered the system's cost in less than 2 years' time, plus your course continues to save money each year that the system operates.

Here's where it can get more complicated. Imagine that your water costs increased 40 percent over the middle 2 years since you installed the system, and you also added $15,000 in sensors and software upgrades to maintain that $21,000 per year savings--even though your total water use went down and labor savings remained the same as Year One. Do you still have a positive ROI? Better buy a calculator--and carry it with you at all times to analyze your position daily. More realistically, develop a spreadsheet to which you can make frequent updates. This way you can easily explain the cost savings to a questioning board member. After all, you are pretty far out "on the curve" for cost savings, so you will need to measure smaller changes (1 to 5 percent from year to year). You also need to report the past-year results more often, explaining the whole story and painting the big picture of water-conservation benefits with small brush strokes.

If your site does not yet have a water meter or access to annual water-use records, then small investments in water-savings devices initially will make huge ROI percentages. You will be "high on the curve," so gains will come easy in terms of percentages--as much as 30 to 50 percent in the first year.

The 21st century: How do I get there? You need a plan to get from here to there. Let's outline an aggressive 3-year plan for the goal of a 100-percent ROI, including both water and labor cost-savings, using an example applicable to a city-park system, an industrial complex or college campus:

Level 1. You have an automatic subsurface pop-up irrigation system with 400 to 500 low-voltage electric valves serving about 400 acres. It is served by 20 to 50 controllers at 10 or more sites. Your annual water costs are $45,000 per year, and you dedicate the equivalent of one person per year to the system's management, plus budgeting for replacements due to damage and contingencies.

You research the options for a central-control system that best uses your existing system's components. * Expense: $30,000

* Savings: $21,000, primarily in labor-cost savings to reset controllers seasonally

* ROI: 70 percent of initial cost.

Level 2. A year later, you add flow-monitoring features to detect main and head breaks quickly at 35 controllers, saving on water costs, annual repairs and site-inspection costs.

* Expense: $15,000

* Savings: $3,000, mostly water and avoided repairs

* ROI: 20 percent.

Level 3. To improve efficiency, you recommend and install a system providing computerized access to weather information, connections to soil-moisture sensors and detailed controller programming to match hydrozones of plantings. This takes a lot of time, some software upgrades, a computer modem, some telephone-line charges or radio equipment, and some selective changes to microspray emitters in certain areas. You even consider contracting with an outside maintenance service to operate the system more cost effectively than you can, allowing you to focus on other aspects or projects in the year 2000.

* Expense: $25,000

* Savings: $2,500, in water/fertilizer savings

* ROI: 10 percent. Keep in mind that savings at each level are usually savings each year, unless you do something different with the basic system or area watered. Usually you'll experience some changes, so try to show the adjustments next to the "Do nothing" alternative for comparison purposes, which represents the situation prior to Level 1.

How to promote such a plan The ROI from these three separate investments meets the goal of a 100-percent total over 3 years. Unless you continue to track it in the subsequent years, your first year's $21,000 savings will be quickly forgotten. When the time comes to rally support for Level-2 and -3 proposals, be sure you look backward to the time before you implemented your water-conservation program. Look back at those fantastic ROI percentages. If you are in a private-industry, corporate setting, an ROI of 10 percent might not meet the minimum level for a new investment, so try to sell the entire program at once, to be implemented in phases.

Avoid the trap of selling the benefits of high-efficiency refinements (at Level 3) before you tackle the day-to-day basics (of Levels 1 and 2). Remember, you are also changing your job description year to year along with managing your investment plan. So keep your position description up to date and build on your credibility.

Plan it, promote it, deliver it and then move on to the next challenge--and the 21st century.

Matt Mathes, ASLA, is owner of Mathes Design (Bellevue, Wash.).

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