The historic Steves Homestead
The historic Steves Homestead uses thoughtful plant textures, including natives like Turk's Cap in its front yard.
Monika Maeckle

Dana Nichols and Karen Guz are on a mission: if you are one of the estimated 30% of SAWS customers who water regularly with an automatic irrigation system, they want you to turn it off. Better yet: get rid of it.

San Antonians who cherish year-around green lawns, even during hot, dry summer months and periods of extended drought, are not likely to jump on the bandwagon. But  Nichols and Guz, the two conservationists who oversee SAWS water education programs, plan to take the same kind of public education outreach used so effectively for indoor water conservation over the last decade. Only now the push for water conservation will come out of the house and into the yard and landscaping.

Starting in 1994, SAWS used giveaways and rebates to install more than 300,000 water-saving toilets through its much lauded Kick the Can low-flush toilet replacement program. The replacement toilets have saved millions of gallons of water from being needlessly flushed and use half the water of the dated models.

Automatic sprinkler on St. Augustine grass
SAWS wants to reduce the use of automatic sprinkler systems and water guzzling turf. Photo courtesy SAWS

Now it’s time to take that kind of conservation effort outdoors.   In most years, 30% of San Antonio’s precious H2O goes directly on to lawns and landscape.  During the historic drought of 2011, almost 50% of water used went outside for landscaping and yards. Thus, even a reduction equaling a few percentage points would be significant.

SAWS’ redirected focus couldn’t be more timely, as the utility prepares to ask City Council for a rate increase that could approach seven per cent in 2013, although that figure is likely to drop by the time a formal request is made in November or December. Continued population and economic growth are the two  main drivers, although SAWS also is working to diversify its sources of water. Public meetings will be held tonight to gather citizen input on the 2012 Water Management Plan, at the Pan Am Branch Library, 6:30 PM, and tomorrow at St. Mary’s University, 6:30 PM.

“If automatic sprinklers didn’t exist, we would have different jobs,” said Guz, Director of Conservation for the award-winning utility.   Automatic sprinkler systems suddenly became standard fare for most new home construction in the 90s.  Before that, most homes managed with manual sprinklers that had to be moved, monitored, started and stopped.  With the advent of the sprinkler industry and the convenience of setting the controllers to spring into action at the appropriate time on assigned watering days, “irrigation efficiencies” abound, said Nichols,  Manager of SAWS outdoor conservation programs.

“It’s just so easy to turn it on and forget about it,” she said.  The systems have gotten increasingly complex over the years, as well.  “They’ve gotten worse than the old VCRs.”

Rebates and incentive programs are underway for making systems more efficient.   SAWS makes available six fulltime consultants to help homeowners control their controllers.  The popular program has a two-week waiting list for appointments and conducts 150 visits per week, as technicians work with homeowners to evaluate their zones and set up their systems for maximum efficiency.

Some San Antonio sprinkler systems dump as much as 60 inches of water a year on their St. Augustine–“the equivalent of what occurs in a rain forest,” said Guz. Homeowners don’t intend to be so wasteful and typically are mortified when they learn that their trees and grass will do fine without the excess.

The second worst offender on the outdoor water wasting front includes inappropriate plant choices and poor landscaping–namely, water guzzling St. Augustine grass.  The lush, carpet-like grass is one of few that will grow in the shade yet frequently is planted in our blazing full sun.  Depending on the depth of the soil and the severity of the sun where planted, St. Augustine can require up to 53 inches of water per year to stay healthy.

Many in San Antonio are irrationally attached to the grass.   Take the City of San Antonio Office of Preservation, for example.   Guideline recommendations that affect landscapes in San Antonio’s 27 local historic districts seem to encourage the maintenance of “traditional lawns” and sloped front yards.  Both encourage unnecessary use of water for landscaping and run-off rather than enlightened choices about native plants and progressive, thoughtful landscaping.  A memo circulated by SAWS noted that the guidelines, up for vote on October 3, “may limit homeowners in these districts to fully implement a WaterSaver landscape.”

Landscape Guidelines, Page 7
Historic Design Guidelines and Standards, page 7 seems to discourage use of native plants.

If the 18-page section that deals with landscapes is approved, it will become part of the Unified Development Code and applicants will be required to obtain a Cerificate of Appropriateness from the Office of Historic Preservation for all proposed exterior modifications.

Most disturbing to SAWS and others concerned about water use is the general encouragement of “traditional lawns” and language that suggests “formal design” somehow only includes turfgrass.  “There’s a conflict between our modern water needs and storm water management and historic looks,” said Jerry Morrisey, President of the Native Plant Society of Texas.  “It’s not good for conservation.”  Morrissey especially took issue with the guidelines’ encouragement of sloping yards which encourage run-off.

Language that suggests homeowners limit the use of diverse plant palettes, rock and organic mulches also raises red flags.  “While practical from a maintenance and water conservation standpoint, informal xeric plantings with a very diverse palette of plant materials…can detract from the character of historic structure when used in the front yard,” the guidelines note on page 7.

“This is not a nuanced document,” said Sarah Lake, ASLA Landscape Architect with a specialty in historic preservation, of the draft of the guidelines.  “They do a great job of preserving things, but they need to be open to historic gardens with a variety of plants.”

Lake, who grew up in San Antonio, remembers a time when yards in historic neighborhoods included a variety of appropriate native, adapted–and, yes–attractive plants, that didn’t necessarily disrupt the treasured feeling of our historic districts.  “I remember when less water useage encouraged more creative use of textured landscapes in the front yard,” she said.

Lake points to several homes on Agarita St. in Monte Vista, the Steves Homestead, Miraflores Garden on Broadway, and Mrs. McNay’s landscape that surrounds the McNay Museum as examples of historic yards and gardens that served well as models for  their neighborhoods.  Other plant material, like mowed horseherb mixed with salvia coxinia can be tapped to mimic St. Augustine, said Lake, adding that the beloved grass was not introduced to San Antonio until the first half of the twentieth century.  “There is precedence for native plants and the guidelines should reflect that,”  she said.

More stories like this:

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

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.  You can reach her at or follow her on Twitter @monikam.

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...