Water scarcity has been cited as one of the most pressing issues for the 21st century.
Conserving our water supply has become an important issue for growing communities. In many Georgia homes, as much as half of household water is used outdoors, mostly for lawn and garden irrigation. Despite Georgia’s humid climate and abundant surface water bodies, water shortages do occur. Demand can overtake supply, and regional droughts force Georgians to practice water conservation.
We can learn how to minimize water waste and create sustainable landscapes that benefit humans, wildlife, the surrounding community and ecosystems while conserving our most precious resource.
The Problem: The Earth’s Water Supply
About 71 percent of Earth’s surface is covered with water, contributing to earth being called the “water planet.” Remarkably, 99 percent of Earth’s total water is unavailable to us as usable water. The vast majority of water on Earth’s surface (roughly 97 percent), is salt water found in the oceans. The remaining 3 percent is freshwater sources made up of frozen ice caps, glaciers, permanent snow (roughly 69 percent of freshwater) and groundwater (roughly 30 percent of freshwater). Of that, less than 1 percent, a miniscule 0.3 percent of all water on Earth, is suitable for drinking, bathing, washing dishes and cars, and watering gardens and landscapes. This means that the water source we are most familiar with in our everyday lives, rivers and lakes, account for less than one percent of all freshwater that exists on Earth.
In regions around the world, fresh water is in chronically short supply. In the United States, we use about 323 billion gallons per day of surface water and roughly 84.5 billion gallons per day of groundwater. Although surface water is used more to supply drinking water and irrigate crops and lawns, groundwater is vital in that is not only helps to keep rivers and lakes full, it also provides water for people in places where visible water is scarce.
The inefficient use of water resources in the United States is a major contributor to the threat of freshwater shortages. Landscape irrigation alone consumes more than 7 billion gallons of freshwater each day. Homeowners use as much as 50-70 percent of their total water consumption outside to keep lawns green and landscapes and gardens lush. It is a popular misconception that this is the only way to have a healthy lawn and landscape. A beautiful landscape can be in tune with the amount of precipitation that falls naturally in the area. We can all learn to be water wise.
Drought and Plants
In nature, water is usually the most limiting factor for plant growth. If plants do not receive adequate rainfall or irrigation, the resulting drought stress can reduce growth more than all other environmental stresses combined. Drought stress results when water loss from the plant exceeds the ability of the plant’s roots to absorb water and when the plant’s water content is reduced enough to interfere with normal plant processes.
For example, on Georgia’s coast, plants may frequently encounter drought stress. Rainfall is seasonal and periodic drought occurs regularly. Because the region’s soils are typically sandy and have low water holding capacity, some plants may experience drought stress after only a few days without water. During drought, local governments may place restrictions on landscape irrigation to conserve potable water, and landscape plants may be subjected to drought stress. The use of drought tolerant native plants in a landscape can reduce the likelihood of plant injury due to drought stress.
Drought stress in the landscape can also be reduced or prevented by efficient irrigation, mulching, providing shade and creating windbreaks. Reducing the overall water requirements of a landscape is best achieved by initially designing the landscape for water conservation, including efficient irrigation systems (e.g. drip hose irrigation), proper watering (e.g. time of watering, frequency and amount) and the use of drought-tolerant native plants.
Waterwise is a common sense approach to landscaping that conserves water and protects the environment based on Xeriscape principles. Xeriscaping is the art of creating water conserving landscapes by efficient watering techniques and selecting plants that are appropriate to the natural environment. Landscaping with minimal water or only the moisture nature provides was dubbed “xeriscaping” several decades ago. Xeriscaping is becoming much more common throughout Georgia and the rest of the nation because it not only protects our limited water resources but is low maintenance and promotes natural, chemical free gardening techniques that are safe for the environment.
Xeriscaping is not zero-scaping. A xeriscape landscape design can be full of life and color, and use 60 percent less water than a typical outdoor design. Contrary to popular belief, xeriscape does not necessarily mean a landscape full of cacti and other succulents. In reality, well-designed xeriscapes are beautiful and functional landscapes full of a diverse array of perennials, ground covers, grasses, vines, shrubs and trees. Xeriscapes are colorful year around, beneficial to wildlife and give a sense of their natural surroundings and regional identity.
Benefits of Waterwise landscaping
- Conserves water
- Retains beauty during times of drought and water shortages
- Allows us to develop healthy, high-quality, beautiful landscapes using ecologically sound landscaping practices
- Reduces water bills
- Reduces insect and disease problems
- Provides wildlife habitat
- Reduces maintenance requirements
- Reduces or eliminates chemical or fertilizer use and thus runoff and water pollution
- Protects well groundwater supply
- Reduces volume of solid waste going to landfill