Water. We all need it. It defines life on Earth. Yet too many of us, for too long, have taken for granted the quantity and quality of our water supply. We Americans are gluttons for water - collectively we use an average of 26 billion gallons each and every day. On a per capita basis, we are the world's largest consumers of water.
Former EPA Administrator Christie Todd Whitman has identified the availability of clean water as the biggest environmental challenge we face in the 21st century. Growing numbers of us are recognizing this challenge and the fact that many day-to-day decisions we make influence our water needs - and our potential for wasting water. As landscaping alone accounts for 20-50% of all residential water use (and even more in some parts of the country), through our landscaping decisions we have a great opportunity to conserve water at home.
Our choices of plants, landscape materials and design, and garden practices have an enormous impact on our outdoor water use. Lawns require two-and-a-half to four times more water than shrubs and trees. Indeed, it is estimated that in the course of a single year, a typical suburban lawn uses 10,000 gallons of water over and above that provided by rainfall. Consequently, one effective way to curb water consumption is to limit lawn area to only that amount we truly need for playing, picnicking, and other purposes. Replacing unneeded lawn with native plants which seldom need supplemental watering once established and using drought-tolerant grass varieties where turf is desired are water-wise decisions. What mulches we use and how we mow and irrigate also determine our landscape's water requirements.
It is important to realize that water conservation entails not only reducing our landscape's need for water, but also minimizing the amount of precipitation that runs off our land instead of seeping down to recharge groundwater supplies. Depending on design, plant choice, soil health, and the type of walkways, patios, and other hardscapes that are installed, landscapes vary dramatically in the amount of runoff they generate. Not surprisingly, a city block generates about nine times more runoff than a wooded area of the same size, but are you aware that a typical suburban lot generates about three times more runoff?
On every property, of any size, there are actions we can take to reduce water consumption and loss.
USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service
Report on water supply forecasts for western states, updated weekly
Texas A&M University
Texas Agricultural Extension Service offering excellent overview of xeriscaping
Bureau of Reclamation
Water Conservation Field Services Program http://www.usbr.gov/waterconservation/
The Groundwater Foundation
Information on caring for groundwater. http://www.groundwater.org/
Montana State University
Living on the Land Stewardship of Small Acreage