The ultimate recyclable

We're often warned about the precarious nature of our water supply. But the interesting thing about water is that we'll never actually run out; at least not the way we could run out of something like petroleum, which, when it's gone, will be gone for good.

That's because when we use water, we don't destroy it. We just put it to work for awhile, then let it go on its way. Thus, while water is used, it is never really used up. Water behind a dam generates electricity as it is released, but then goes on down the river; water we use in our homes goes down the drain, to a wastewater plant and eventually is used for irrigation or, more likely, is returned to surface waters; water we use to irrigate crops and turf may be used by plants initially, but sooner or later will return to the “system” by transpiration. One way or another, it all either evaporates immediately or returns to the oceans via surface drainage (i.e. rivers). From there, it will evaporate, forming clouds and rain. The cycle never ends.

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There's a name for this: it's the hydrologic cycle, and it's why we have a continuous new supply of fresh water. The problem is that there's little we can do to increase the amount of water generated through the hydrologic cycle. We'll always get more, but only what Mother Nature grants us.

People have been noting — correctly — that with growing populations placing additional demands on water resources, we're bound to bump up against some limits. This is especially clear when you consider how much of our water comes from dwindling aquifers, which are, in most cases, non-replenishible. Catastrophic predictions aside, it's clear that things are changing when it comes to water use.

Perhaps the most certain thing is that water will become much more expensive. Water is supplied to most of us by agencies that often artificially price water at a level that keeps demand in line with supply. The hope is that more expensive water will reduce usage, thereby avoiding the need to ration. It doesn't always work out that way, so sometimes we're stuck with rationing schemes such as odd/even watering days.

Another way to bring down water consumption is to regulate products that use water. That's why we now have front-loading washing machines, low-flow shower heads and the not-so-popular low-flow toilets.

Yet another strategy is to recycle water. Recycled water is also known as effluent, and is increasingly used as a source of irrigation water. Even though domestic water use accounts for less than 5 percent of water use in the United States, it's the main source of recyclable water.

It's a great idea in principle, but not without practical challenges. For one thing, whole new water systems have to be built because you can't run effluent through the same pipes as potable water. For another, effluent tends to be high in mineral content. This creates certain agronomic challenges, such as managing salt buildup in soils.

So, efficient water management is becoming a necessary fact of life. We're all aware that we can't take clean, fresh water for granted; that ultimately we'll have to try to use less of it.

Although you might think this bodes ill for the irrigation industry, in fact it's just the opposite. It takes more sophisticated systems to deliver water with greater precision, and to match irrigation rates with actual water needs. It also takes more knowledgeable managers to set up, operate and repair these systems.

And the financial incentive is clear. Just ask any facility with a six-figure water bill how happy they'd be if they could cut their water costs by 10 or 20 percent. That's why we're seeing a whole new breed of irrigation contractors who specialize not merely in irrigation, but in irrigation efficiency.

The author of this month's cover feature, Lorne Haveruk, is one such contractor. In “To the last drop,” starting on page 10, Haveruk explains not just how to conserve water, but how to increase your business by conserving water. It looks like it's going to be a growing industry.

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