Irrigation Industry Needs Widespread Commitment

All must embrace technology to advance water conservation

Deborah Hamlin, executive director of the Irrigation Association
Deborah Hamlin, executive director of the Irrigation Association

Smart Irrigation Month, an Irrigation Association (IA) initiative designed to increase public awareness of the value of water-use efficiency, is coming up in July. Now is the perfect time to sit down with Deborah Hamlin, IA's executive director, to get an update on the overall state of the landscape irrigation business.

Q: The EPA has decided to suspend its "40% rule" which had many in the Green Industry up in arms. What else is going on with EPA with respect to water restrictions these days?

We were very pleased when the EPA’s WaterSense program announced plans to remove the 40% turfgrass restriction as an option in the new homes labeling specification. The WaterSense specification is currently going through a revision process, which will hopefully be completed by the end of 2012. At that time, if all goes to plan, the WaterSense water budget tool will be the sole option for landscape design within the WaterSense new homes labeling specification.

Regarding water restrictions and regulations, the EPA garners a lot of attention under the Obama administration. Since 2009, environmentalists continue to say that the EPA isn’t doing enough to promote clean air and water. Conversely, conservatives argue that the EPA oversteps its boundaries when enforcing the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. While we are still concerned about the EPA’s efforts to expand the scope of the Clean Water Act, we are fortunate that the main focus on landscape irrigation within the EPA is the voluntary WaterSense program.

It's essential that the WaterSense program functions in a way that promotes water-efficient technologies and services, rather than limits them. As water quantity and quality increasingly drive public policy, we are seeing portions of the WaterSense program included in municipal codes, local legislation and other regulatory settings. This is why the universal 40% turfgrass restriction was such a problem for us at IA.

The EPA is also moving forward with the WaterSense labeling of weather-based irrigation smart controllers, which are scheduled to hit the shelves this year. We are hoping that WaterSense continues to be a driver for not only these water use-efficient products, but also future products such as soil moisture sensor controllers.

Q: Compared to the last couple of years, how would you characterize the landscape irrigation business in 2012?

The landscape irrigation business is slowly improving, although few contractors are making as much money as in prior years due to the economic downturn. Based on my discussions with contractors this past year, I believe that the successful companies looked at their operations and made adjustments by offering additional services and/or reducing expenses in order to remain profitable.

Many contractors turned to retrofitting and maintenance instead of completely relying on new installs. Many irrigation designers and consultants have been quite busy with larger projects, which indicates that more work will be available in the coming months.

Q: Do you believe that the industry at large has fully embraced new technologies like smart controllers, or do contractors still have a long way to go?

The more progressive landscape irrigation companies are taking advantage of the changes occurring in the marketplace to become more sustainable. As a result, we believe that landscape water management will continue to grow in importance. An irrigation system that is well designed, installed and maintained facilitates improved water management.

The new technology works well, but often requires a higher level of knowledge about irrigation systems, not to mention skills at installing system components to function effectively. Poor execution on the part of field personnel negates all of the science, engineering and manufacturing precision that goes into the products available today. Unfortunately, we continue to see this.

As an industry, though, we have made some progress. It takes commitment from all segments of the industry—manufacturers and distributors, designers and consultants, contractors and technicians—to become wise water stewards. Everyone’s role is important to achieve success in embracing new technologies in order to ensure that water is available for future generations.