March 2009

Water: Where is it all going?

Author: Dave Kerns

Water…… a.k.a. H20. Two parts hydrogen, one part oxygen. A pretty simple formula it seems. Maybe that’s why water is so abundant. Our world is made up of over 70 percent water, so it seems like there could never be a shortage. Unfortunately only one percent of the earth’s water is actually usable to us, the rest being salt water, permanently frozen within the arctic regions, or deep underground in aquifers that we cannot reach.

Thanks to the earth’s “water cycle” the amount of available water today is the same as when the earth was formed 3 billion years ago, so fortunately we are not “using it up.” The problem is that the number of us has not remained the same. At today’s rate, we are adding a billion new people every 11 years, and global population is narrowing in on 7 billion. In the United States, our population of a little over 300 million is estimated to be pushing 400 million by the year 2050. That’s like adding 35 new cities about the size of Chicago, and it’s hard enough to get a little peace and quiet now. Some experts estimate that, by 2025, more than half of the world’s population will be facing a water crisis. According to UNICEF more than 1 billion people around the world routinely drink unhealthy water.

The world still has enough water; the problem is that we do such a poor job managing it. While is takes 12 gallons of water per day to sustain a human, the average American uses about 158 gallons per day, according to U.S. News and World Report. In many households in this country, as much as 50 percent of water usage is taking place outdoors for our lawns and gardens. That’s enough to sustain six humans for a day. I think we can do better! Indoor water conservation is important as well, but with spring planting season upon us, I decided to focus on outdoor water conservation tips for March.

I stopped by two of our local nurseries to see if there were a few outdoor water conservation tips they could offer. At the Greenery, located just next door to Long Cove Plantation on Hilton Head Island, I spoke to Amy Spadfora, the general manager of the retail department. Soil preparation was the first thing that came to mind for her when I asked about spring planting tips and water conservation. Hilton Head Island has very sandy soil. It lacks nutrients and does not hold water well. Much water is wasted because it can run right through it. By mixing our sandy soil with a nutrient rich potting soil and compost, a healthy home is created for our plants, and water is used much more efficiently. Most plants that are proper for our area do not need to be watered every day. I had always assumed that, at the end of a long summer day, I was hot and thirsty, so my plants must be too. I was often wasting water, I learned.

Secondly, Amy discussed the best time for watering plants: between 4 and 7 a.m. For those of us who only see 4 a.m. when celebrating the Steelers winning the Super Bowl from the night before, she said 7 a.m. until 9 a.m. was okay, too. Plants need hydration just as we do, and the early morning, as they prepare to meet the challenge of a long, hot summer day, is best. I liked her analogy to going for a run: It’s much easier to meet the challenge if you hydrate your body first. She also mentioned that you need to soak the roots, not spray the foliage. You’re wasting water by spraying the foliage, as foliage does not absorb water and does not need to be cooled off. It’s the roots that want a drink. Spraying yourself with the hose might feel good after a run, but it’s the inside of your body that really needs the water. Water droplets on the leaves can also act as a magnifying glass that will burn the leaves on a bright sunny day. So water low and water early to get the least evaporation and the best use of the water.

Next Amy brought up the term xeriscaping, which she told me means using plants that require little supplemental water. She noted a few examples of incredibly drought-resistant plants: yucca, agave, and aloe as well as many herbs including sage, thyme, lavender and rosemary. Using drought-resistant plants can save hundreds of gallons of water. She had many other good examples and much more water conservation advice. I’d advise you to stop to see her or her staff and to learn more as you’re about to do your spring planting.

My next stop was Sunshine Hardscape, Landscape, and Nursery, located across from Belfair in Bluffton. Soil preparation must be important for both water conservation as well the health of your plants, as the topic came up first again. I learned that locally we also have areas of very clay-rich soil which holds moisture well. If you put too much water onto clay rich soil, it will just run off and be wasted, much like pouring water onto your driveway. Soaking your clay rich soil can lead to root rot. As a very amateur gardener, I didn’t know much about sandy versus clay-rich soil, but the term root rot certainly did not sound good. The Sunshine staff also discussed planting depth. The top couple of inches of soil will dry out quickly, so roots need to be several inches down. If we water every time the ground’s surface looks dry, we probably will be wasting water, as just a few inches down the roots might be happy and moist. Pushing a wooden skewer several inches down can help you judge if water is needed.

I asked about suggestions for plants that will help us conserve water. Lantana, I was told, is very drought-resistant. The staff had many other suggestions and, again, I recommend you stop by to learn more for yourself.

Last, I talked with Tricia Salley about irrigation. She indicated that a drip irrigation system not only leads to a healthier garden but can save hundreds of gallons of water versus spraying your plants with a hose.

Other outdoor water conservation tips:

• Determine if your lawn needs watering by taking a walk across it. It you leave footprints, it’s time to water. If you don’t, you just may have found yourself with a little extra time on your hands to grab a lemonade and kick back in your favorite outdoor chair to enjoy the beauty of your water-conscious lawn and garden.

• Water your established lawn only every three to five days in the summer.

• Get rid of weeds that compete for water and nutrients.

• Set a timer so you don’t forget about the sprinkler.

• Plant during the spring when water requirements are lower. This will also allow the plants to get better established and more ready for the intense heat of the summer.

• Use a layer of organic mulch around plants to reduce evaporation. This can save hundreds of gallons of water a year.

• Use a broom instead of a hose to clean your driveway or sidewalk and you can save as much as 80 gallons of water each time.

Most of these tips require very little effort on your part, so why not help the cause? Fortunately, it seems that our new president has our environment high on his list of priorities. You may or may not like his stimulus plan for the economy, but hopefully we can all agree that our environment needs to take a front seat. As I write this, President Obama has been in office for only 3 weeks. Yet standing in line for coffee the other morning, I listened to the person behind me criticize nearly every policy he is attempting to implement, including his environmental policies. Don’t be “that person”, Fox News is not looking to hire another anchor. Maybe it’s time to relax and have that glass of lemonade on the back porch and think about water conservation and how you can contribute within your own household.

I hope you’ll join in the effort and follow some of this month’s water conservation tips. You will be doing what is best, not only for your future, but for your kids and grandkids as well. They will appreciate your effort!

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