Drip irrigation: the next big thing. Photo courtesy City of Frisco
Drip irrigation: the next big thing. Photo courtesy City of Frisco.
Monika Maeckle

In San Antonio’s landscaping drama, mulch and native plants play the good guys, while invasive species and automatic sprinkler systems assume the role of villains.

That was the message for  65 students who attended a three-hour Watersaver Landscape Design School on a recent Saturday morning in late February.   Landscape designer Brian Hough laid out the basics of landscape design in a colorful slideshow.   Horticulturist Dr. Jerry Parsons offered 12 months of  native and well-adapted plants that bloom throughout the seasons.  Master Gardener Dr. Tom Harris provided a quick overview of drip irrigation, the preferred sprinkler solution in times of drought and water shortages.  Mark Peterson of SAWS’  even broached the “z” word–that’s right, xeriscape, a style of landscaping based on limited water use.

Drip irrigation: the next big thing. Photo courtesy City of Frisco
Drip irrigation: the next big thing. Photo courtesy City of Frisco.

“Xeriscapes are NOT about rocks,” Peterson clarified.  (The word comes from the Greek xeros, which means dry.)  Students came away with the distinct sense that in the age of climate change and limited, more expensive water, thoughtful landscape choices make economic, aesthetic and common sense.

The workshop was sponsored by Gardening Volunteers of South Texas, Milberger’s Nursery and SAWS.   Look for more education outreach from SAWS as it turns its conservation focus from indoor low-flush toilets to landscaping the Great Outdoors.  Appropriate plant choices and limiting or eliminating automatic sprinkler systems will be a common refrain as we move into our third year of drought.  Peterson offered this advice to someone seeking guidance on irrigation systems for a new home:  “Please consider NOT putting in an automatic sprinkler system in new construction.”

SAWS’ attitude is understandable as our city faces Stage III water restrictions for the the first time.   It could happen in just a few months.  Landscape irrigation accounts for 30 – 70% of San Antonio’s water use, depending on the time of year.  During the peak of the 2011 drought, up to 100 millions of gallons of water per day were tapped for outdoor irrigation.  Residential automatic sprinkler systems often break, leak, are poorly programmed or become the objects of benign homeowner neglect.  They rank as a prime source of thousands of gallons of wasted water.

It wasn’t always so.  Until the 1990s, only large properties, high-end estates and some gated communities used them.

Rainbird Rainclox sprinkler controller
Rainbird Corporation introduced a sprinkler “controller board” in 1962. Photo courtesy Rainbird Virtual Museum

“It used to be a luxury,” said Nelson Haney, a supplier of pipe and fixtures to irrigation installers.   Haney has worked at Longhorn Pipe and Supply for 10 years.    “They used to be made of iron pipe and copper.  A lot of labor was required to install them and it was very expensive,” he said.   These days, automatic sprinklers are made of cheap, mass-produced plastic and are almost as common as automatic dishwashers.

According to RainBird, the largest manufacturer of automatic sprinkler systems in the world, the electronic controller for residential irrigation systems was introduced in 1962.   Hailed as the “first appliance for the garden”  the controllers allowed for mindless lawn maintenance, making it possible for absent homeowners to water separate stations of shrubs, beds and grass.   San Antonio’s first automatic sprinkler system probably arrived in the late 40s or early 50s, said Scott Hodge, president of the San Antonio Irrigtaion Association,  (SAIA) a trade group of about 100 irrigation industry professionals.

Since then, the systems have become ubiquitous. “We’ve started seeing sprinkler systems even in what builders call entry-level homes,” said Karen Guz, conservation director for SAWS.   Some homeowners’ associations mandate grassy lawns and the sprinkler systems that maintain them.   Entire developments like Roger’s Ranch and Cibolo Canyons require automatic irrigation systems.  Homeowners who flout the rules receive reprimands. Updates to the  2013 Conservation Ordinance specify that homeowners may not be forced to put in a sprinkler system when they build.

Rogers Ranch lawn
Homeowners associations in Rogers Ranch and other subdivisions REQUIRE homeowners to have an automatic sprinkler system.
Photo via olx.com

The situation has been challenging for San Antonio’s $100 – $150 million sprinkler system industry.  “I think it sucks,” said Larry Dickinson, owner of Dickinson Sprinkler and Lawn, a local family owned business that was founded in 1983.   Dickinson conceded that we need to conserve water.   “Yeah, we probably need to not water the whole county,” he said, adding that increased regulation combined with the drought have made his business tougher and more competitive.

In September of 2011, the sprinkler industry pushed for passage of House Bill 2507.   The bill made it a Class C Misdemeanor punishable by a $500 fine per person for unlicensed individuals to install, repair or amend a sprinkler system.  Irrigation specialists are licensed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

But to date, neither SAWS nor the SAIA were aware of any citations having been issued.  “It’s frustrating –not just to the public, but to us irrigators who are doing things by the books.”    Hodge says confusion about who’s responsible for enforcing the law has delayed its effectiveness.  SAWS stressses that the goal is compliance, not citations.   “Working through the enforcement is always harder than people think it should be”  said Guz.   “On the other hand, would any of us want it to be easy to put criminal charges in place against fellow citizens?  Probably not.” Meanwhile, SAWS has engaged off-duty police officers to to work part-time to cite violators for watering outside their assigned watering days and times.

Drip irrigation is “the next big thing,” according to Dickinson.   The drip systems are more complex and expensive to install. Cost for the average yard might run $3,800 for a drip system compared to $2,500 for a spray system, earning the higher cost back in water savings within three- four years, according to SAIA.  Dickinson said drip system installation can be more profitable for installers. “You’ve got to find the  silver lining,” he said.

To help offset those costs, SAWS has an aggressive rebate program in place for upgrading existing sprinkler systems. Homeowners can earn up to $800 per household to convert spray systems to drip.   The utility has authorized a slew of bounties–$450 per household to remove a sprinkler system, $250 to cap a single zone, and  $200 for converting a spray zone to drip irrigation.    See the SAWS page for a complete list of irrigation rebates.

Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.  She covers nature in the urban environment for this website and serves as a volunteer on the SAWS Community Conservation Committee.  You can reach her at monika@therivardreport.com or follow her on Twitter @monikam.

Related Stories on the Rivard Report:

Spring Ag Irrigation Could Move City Toward Stage III Water Restrictions

SAWS to Take Water Conservation Outside: Just Say “NO” to Automatic Water Sprinklers

San Antonio Lawn Makeover:  Before Next Drought, Say Goodbye to Water Guzzling Grass

Aquifer Falls Below 640 Feet, but Stage III Restrictions Stay on Hold

The Cost of New Water:  A City That’s Outgrown its Aquifer

Cheap Water:  End of an Era

San Antonio Report co-founder Monika Maeckle writes about pollinators, native plants, and the ecosystems that sustain them at the Texas Butterfly Ranch website. She is also the founder and director of...