In light of drought, Midland looks to alternative landscaping

February 19, 2012
By

The ever-dwindling water supply and host of outdoor use
restrictions are forcing some West Texans to consider alternative
landscaping designs.

Hot summer temperatures, persistent drought conditions,
decreases in available water sources, prohibitive costs and
restrictions are spurring new ideas in some cases, while in others
switching to more sustainable native desert flora.

Despite this year’s above average rainfall — 1.18 inches of
rain in 2012 compared to historical date average of 1.03 inches —
water tables still are dangerously low. Not only would the Permian
Basin have to exit the drought, there would need to be enough
rainfall to make up for last year’s dry conditions. An
ever-increasing population also adds constraints to the area’s
access to the life-sustaining commodity.

The drought aside, the West Texas reservoir system is more than
100,000 acre feet less than when originally established in 1961.
Recently, the main reservoirs that supply water to the region have
dropped from 500,000 acre feet of water to about 100,000 acre feet,
according to the Colorado River Municipal Water District’s
historical tables.

Conditions are their worst in more than a generation. The last
city to use the E.V. Spence Reservoir has discontinued to drain the
lake because it is at only .5 percent capacity. The last of the
great West Texas lakes, the O.H. Ivie Reservoir, is hovering around
17.5 percent and tasked with supplying Odessa, Midland, Big Spring
and San Angelo, among others, with water. Recent precipitation is
doing little to replenish the lakes.

The drought is exacerbating the danger. Usage levels are
unsustainable and require municipalities to not only look for other
supplemental sources, but also to fundamentally address how water
is used. Several community leaders, including Mayor Wes Perry, are
stressing the need for a landscaping cultural shift.

Innovation in desperation

Most forms of innovation take hold at the grassroots level.
Several companies, like Alldredge Gardens and Top Notch
Landscaping, started toying with the idea of installing
low-maintenance artificial turf as a possible solution to
increasing restrictions on outdoor water use by local
governments.

Most cities started enforcing water restrictions last summer. As
the drought persisted, the number of days and hours a homeowner
could water kept decreasing. This week, Odessa announced residents
will only be able to water outdoors for two hours a week starting
April 1. Perry said Midland might follow suit. The limited amount
of outdoor water likely will not be enough to sustain the lush,
well-manicured lawns Midlanders have been used to. In face of
adversity, innovation flourishes.

“Midland’s residents simply don’t want dead yards,” said Josh
Clark, manager for Alldredge Gardens’ landscaping division.

To offset dwindling revenue streams, local landscapers are
looking at synthetic alternatives.

Clark said all of Alldredge Gardens’ recent jobs have been
complete artificial renovations. The company exclusively is using a
high-end artificial grass called EZ Turf. The massive, carpet-like
squares are stitched together and have an underground irrigation
system to stop pooling. The landscaping company has installed more
than 30,000 square feet of the material in the past four
months.

The chief landscaper is optimistic about this product as he
rattled off its benefits: No need to water, no mowing, low
maintenance, pet friendly, durable and almost fade-proof. Although
the initial investment price for the artificial grass is about
three times what his company would charge for a simple sod job,
after about eight years the investment starts to pay dividends.
Once the initial cost is covered, there is little more expenditure
compared to those of a natural lawn. There is a 15-year
manufacturer warranty and an estimated life-span between 20 and 25
years.

So far, most of 30,000 square feet of turf have been installed
on residential property, but Clark says he sees more corporate
interest. While on-site at an installation at Henry Petroleum on
Andrews Highway this week, he demonstrated how time consuming and
meticulous the work was. The relatively small job took a crew of
about a dozen to complete. Some were laying the basework irrigation
system, others were anchoring the turf and stitching pieces
together. Once the grass was laid, stitched and anchored, silica
sand and a rubber compound were added to keep the blades facing
upward and add a natural bouncy grass-like feel to the synthetic
material.

Clark said he has heard nothing but positive reviews from
customers and expects the already high demand to increase once
people see more of the turf throughout the city.

Homeowner Victoria Wantland already was excited about her new
yard and Top Notch Landscaping’s Brad Tatum hadn’t even finished
his work.

She said she learned of the product on Home and Garden TV and
did a lot of independent research before deciding to make the
switch. When she and her husband moved into their northern Midland
neighborhood, their backyard was lush and green. But, because of
watering restrictions, a large tree preventing direct sunlight and
three dogs digging, the yard resembled a dirt lot with sporadic
patches of grass.

“I’m just pumped to not have any more paw prints in my kitchen”
Wantland said.

Tatum said Wantland’s backyard, about 1,000 square feet, would
take a crew of two about two full days because of how labor
intensive the artificial turf was to lay and stitch. He said the
meticulous work was to ensure no seams were showing so it resembled
real grass.

His relatively new company exclusively is installing the
product. He described his business as “zero-scape”
installation.

Aside from going artificial, there also has been an uptick in
landowners seeking more native, desert landscaping options.

Native alternatives

Not everyone is onboard the plastic grass express. Although
Kelly Cook, a partner with landscape architecture firm KDC
Associates, said artificial is a valid sustainable option, he is
hoping its adoption isn’t widespread. He raised a few issues with
some types of artificial turf — but praised EZ Turf as high
quality — and had other issues with shoddy installation because of
how difficult it is to install properly. His main point of
contention centered around aesthetics. He compared the plastic
grass to mini malls and parking lots. Cook said West Texans should
be embracing native style plants and look at cities Scottsdale,
Ariz., for inspiration, rather than east where there is more
precipitation.

“In my more than 4,000 residential jobs since I started this
company, I can count on two hands the amount of people that have
asked for a desert, native landscape,” Cook said. “Most of the time
I get someone asking for a landscape they saw in Southern Living
(magazine). This is not Dallas or Atlanta. There are limited water
supplies and people should start embracing more sustainable
landscape choices.”

Although few opt for a natural route, the demand has increased
over the past year, according to owners and managers at several
Midland-based landscaping companies and nurseries.

The demand for natural sod is almost nonexistent, said Homero
Galindo, owner of Sandy’s Nursery. He said more people are asking
for gravel and rock to make beds. Native desert plants such as
cactus are gaining popularity.

Galindo said the drought has hurt his business, but in response
he is further diversifying the type of flora at his nursery. He is
encouraging more customers to consider heartier trees, like live
oaks, that don’t require considerable amounts of water.

Clark said Alldredge Gardens is seeing an uptick in desert
plants. Last year he started to notice a more native trend and said
since then, it has continued to grow. He said he wasn’t satisfied
just getting the basic desert plants and his company is seeking
more diverse and interesting styles of plants.

“In the end, these types of decisions will be better for Midland
long-term,” Clark said about the alternative landscaping styles
available.

Outdoor living rooms

Other options Midlanders have, Cook said, are outdoor living
spaces composed of trees, beds, bushes, rock and pathways. The
style has exploded since the advent of HGTV and other DIY blogs and
publications. Some are more basic designs, but others incorporate
fire pits, massive outdoor kitchens and lounge areas.

Aside from water management statistics — which Cook said were
improvements — he said the outdoor living spaces were more
aesthetically appealing than acres of flat grass.

Cook described a typical outdoor backyard with 26 irrigation
spray heads. After quickly doing the math, he said a system
operating four times a week for 15-minute increments during growing
season and a water cycle of two times a week for 15-minute cycles
during the winter season will use about 189,000 gallons a year. In
contrast, he said water usage for an outdoor living room using a
new water method becoming popular with many landscape architecture
firms: Netafim Drip Lines.

The lines are long subterranean hoses that slowly drip water
rather than spraying it throughout a yard. More than 60 percent of
water used on irrigation spray systems is lost because of blow off,
runoffs or evaporation, he said.

“It’s all about using innovation to save resources,” he
added.

An outdoor living area using the Netafim Drip Line requires only
3,648 gallons for optimal use, a literal drop in the bucket
compared the 189,000 needed under the average current setup, Cook
said.

Although none of these answers will be right for everyone, a
collection of water-reducing outdoor landscape designs collectively
will lower Midland’s water use. Regardless of which option
Midlanders choose, it will be a step toward prolonging Midland’s
limited life-sustaining commodity until other sources of water can
be tapped, developed and fully realized.

James Cannon can be reached at [email protected]

© 2012 Mywesttexas.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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