A commentary on water consumption, conservation, waste, and soil health.
Agua, Acqua, Eau, Wasser, Woda, Bona … WATER. Combine two parts hydrogen with one part oxygen, mix vigorously and there you have it: Water, the miracle liquid that sustains all life as we know it. Oh, if it were only that easy, I tell myself. Without it, we perish. Since the beginning of time, water has been a source of life and, conversely, death throughout the world. All through ancient civilizations, water was considered a gift from the gods. Fountains were erected, and hot baths were commonplace. The gods of rain (for example, Zeus in Greek and Tlaloc in Aztec mythology) were widely worshiped. Along with the popularity of public baths and the desire to improve personal hygiene came epidemics resulting from waterborne diseases. One of the worst famines in history occurred during the Middle Ages as a result of excessive rainfall and flooding. The old saying is true… too much of a good thing is sometimes not so good.
So, what is the current status of available fresh water in the world? Well, according to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the outlook could be better. “Water, water everywhere nor any drop to drink.” These words came from the poem about a thirsty old sailor who was surrounded by water and could not quench his thirst. Quite frankly, this quote hits a little too close to home, given the droughts we’ve endured in much of the United States over the past several years.
More than three quarters (75-80%) of the planet is covered by water or ice, but only 1% of that is suitable for human consumption. Greater than 97% is salt water in the ocean, and 2% is ice. Survival books tell us that the human body can survive for nearly two months without food, but less than a week without drinking water. We drink it daily, wash our clothes, cars and dishes with it, and irrigate our landscapes with it. Some businesses even water the sidewalks and city streets – more on this phenomenon later. We drink it straight-up and out of fountains. We mix it with carbonation, coloring and vitamins and drink it out of plastic bottles. Drinking the natural spring variety out of fancy glass bottles was all the rage not so long ago. For all of our love affair with this colorless, odorless wet stuff, one would think that there is an endless supply sitting in a great reservoir somewhere simply waiting for us to tap into it. Guess what? There isn’t.
WHAT’S ON THE HORIZON?
Now, more than ever, responsible consumption and conservation of water should be on the front page of every newspaper and online news reporting website. The indisputable truth that one comes to is that as global population increases, the amount of water that is available for all of our needs decreases. The water currently lost on those who don’t think about the gallons of water going down the drain as they wait for it to reach the perfect temperature. It should be obvious to the most naïve that, at current levels, population growth and normal usage will one day outpace our water collection capability, either because of lack of sheer volume of water or lack of adequate infrastructure to collect and store it. We basically have two choices: (1) conserve water and use it more responsibly, or (2) limit, even ration, the amount available to each person or family.
WORLD WAR III … OR IV?
Most of us assume that oil or religious fanaticism will lead to World War III. Others who understand the consequences of our gluttony of water think that perhaps more regional, national and even international conflicts will arise from disputes over water or the easy access to it. Consider that sprawling urban development in America and around the world continues to put strains on water supplies, taxing our already nearly depleted reservoirs. More people are taking showers, washing clothes, washing dishes, (normal usage), etc. The onset of widespread drought conditions and weather changes like El Nino and the effects of potential global warming have made us realize that our reckless use of water in the past has left us in a crisis. Some areas of the world experience constant drought conditions. Over 40% of the world’s population lives with constant water shortages. If we are not keenly aware of our use and begin to focus on sincere conservation efforts, we will one day find ourselves with water restrictions of a severity most of us cannot imagine. One could even suggest that our next world war may very well be over water, rather than oil. If you think that’s far-fetched, go back to the ongoing drought that made news beginning in 2007 and read archived articles from the Atlanta Journal Constitution related to the border dispute between Florida and Georgia. The water crisis is real! We in the South or the West may have a better perspective than those in some other parts of the country, but all, no doubt, will be equally affected when the Jet Stream decides not to favor their area with rain.
Mismanagement of water has also been occurring for thousands of years. An estimated 69% of the water used worldwide is for irrigation. Irrigation is necessary in some parts of the world that would not otherwise be able to grow crops, but in other areas, irrigation is mainly used to produce more profitable harvests. Rapid population growth, expanding businesses, urbanization and climate pattern’s are a few factors that affect our water supply. Because of the natural cycle of water – rain, use, and evaporation, then more rain, we assume that the amount of water on Earth remains fairly constant. On the surface, this appears true, but the amount of clean, usable water needed for survival is decreasing at an alarming rate. Pollution increases in population and our wasteful habits contribute. We have been conditioned to expect fresh, clean water to fill our glasses when we turn on the faucet. Readily available drinking water is our right, for goodness sake. Some believe Americans are spoiled and take the path of least resistance, leaving more responsible conservation efforts to others. You know, “them,” those whack-o’s that populate fringe groups and spend their time saving whales and spotted owls – and whining about global warming. Well, of course, I don’t believe this. It’s not that the stereotypical American necessarily chose the path he is on. I don’t think he slowed down long enough when habits were formed to even notice!
THERE ARE TWO PATHS! It is a problem of education and helping others to understand the benefits of creating sustainable environments. The plants that appear healthy in our modern landscapes are not healthy. They only appear healthy on the surface while the roots below are struggling. Water is not the foundation of plant health. A healthy, living soil is the foundation of all plant health. Only with a healthy, open and porous soil profile can root systems fully develop. Healthy soil and fully developed root systems allow us to reduce our dependence on supplemental irrigation that which chemically fertilized plants rely upon. I teach everyone with whom I come in contact that things are not as they seem, that easy is not better and plant health, as they understand it, is an illusion. Then you see their faces light up as they begin to understand the natural factors that affect plant health and the roles that fertility, water, and proper maintenance habits play in creating healthy plants. In our case, we talk about sustainable growing environments, water conservation, and creating a healthier soil profile that supports an active soil food web, which in turn provides the opportunity for sustainable, healthy growth.
Growing up in the mountains of North Carolina, I had a natural spring and well water. There wasn’t a water or utility department. I never thought about water pollution, whether or not the water we used was safe, how much we were using or even that we needed to conserve it. Water always seemed an available, free, resource, and an everyday part of life. It flowed readily down clean streams and rivers from which I drank. We watered our livestock with it and used it for our own needs. Sometimes the rain flooded our crops and other times it was slow to come. I began to see how harvests increased with more rain and declined when there was less. Early on as I became more serious about growing and improving plant health, I recall seeing how people indiscriminately used and wasted water. Washing cars, filling swimming pools, taking long showers, and many other wasteful habits became common indulgences. There was little or no concern about conserving water, keeping it clean, or consistently overwatering their plants, flowers and gardens, wasting water around every bend. Hoses were left on, sprinkler systems ran day and night, and each time a plant looked sick they would water it more, sometimes to the point of actually killing the plant. As urban communities began to spring up, water usage increased at alarming rates. People moving from the cities to the suburbs suddenly cared more about their yards as a place of prestige and leisure. Keeping up with the Joneses, having the best yard on the block, was an aspiration many strived for. Additionally, the desire to have a lush green lawn caused consumers to look for better and more efficient ways to water their landscapes. This desire gave rise to the many gadgets that help to automate the watering process. Hoses and sprinklers became part of Main Street USA. Sprinklers came in many styles including oscillating, fan, rotary, fountain and even self-moving. Soaker hoses were placed in planting beds and gardens to slowly and evenly water small areas. Their sales exploded in hardware and box stores across America.
Another innovation to come along was the in-ground irrigation system with built-in sprinkler heads that pop up out of the ground when it’s time to water. To the consumers’ delight, these sprinkler systems could be set up on a timer system to automatically water lawns as often as desired, rain or shine. Homeowners rarely evaluated landscapes to determine water needs. Apparently, they thought that the irrigation systems knew how much water the plants needed. “Just set it and forget it” became a common theme. And forget it we did. Yes, we have all seen irrigation systems watering in the middle of a rain shower and, yes, it’s ridiculous. We’ve also seen sprinkler heads in great need of adjustment or repair. Refer to my comment in the beginning about watering the sidewalks and city streets. We have seen it time and time again; broken sprinkler heads pointed away from the property they were intended to water, watering the sidewalks and the streets, gallon after precious gallon. This occurs frequently but was most notable at the height of the recent drought when the only businesses that could water were those with special permission from the city. By the early 1980s, 25% of all Americans had in-ground sprinkler systems. But simply watering lawns wasn’t enough. Homeowners had less and less time to care for their lawns and looked for a quick fix. They wanted lush green lawns and landscapes, and they didn’t want to wait for the results. We have come a long way since the 1980s. At the time, “Green” was equated with “health”, as in “lush health,” not “environmentally friendly health,” as it has come to mean in the 21st century. So along came chemical fertilizers that quickly transformed grass and gave it a vibrant, green appearance. When chemical fertilizers were introduced to consumers in the 1940s and 1950s, they were thought to be a modern miracle, but no one asked how these chemicals would affect the soil and plant health, waterways or water usage.
SCIENCE TO THE RESCUE … NOT YET!
We can thank a German chemist named Justus Von Liebig for the introduction of chemical fertilizers. The son of a chemist, he began his studies as a young boy. By analyzing the burnt ashes of plants, Von Liebig discovered that plants contained different amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (NPK). His experiments indicated that plants grow faster and bigger with more NPK, for example, 10-10-10 or 17-17-17, and he went on to further develop these macronutrients. Thus began the revolution of synthetic fertilizers. Instead of letting plants grow naturally, his new fertilizer enabled farmers to grow bigger and more abundant crops. In and around the home, consumers started adopting the use of synthetic fertilizers to improve their gardens, shrubs, flowers and lawns. Homeowners, as well as farmers, were happy with these results, but it didn’t occur to any of them that they were creating false growing environments, opting for short-term surge growth instead of long-term soil and plant health.
This new revolution of synthetic fertilizers was all about mass crop production. The promise of increasing the yield of harvest tenfold excited everyone. Chemical manufacturers supported and funded research, offered rewards and funding to colleges for programs, and hosted educational seminars on ways to use their products. These companies had a profound impact on agriculture. As chemical companies evolved, they continued to push their agenda while the organic, natural approach took a back seat. Agricultural farming communities not only incorporated synthetic fertilizers, but massive irrigation systems using billions of gallons of water each year just to keep the crops alive. This practice continued for decades. Little did we know in the early days that the salt content in synthetic fertilizers dried out our soil and caused us to use more water just to keep the plants alive and growing. Lost in the world of modernization and ease, we just followed the crowd and went along with the current trend. Most homeowners didn’t know anything about plants and their needs for survival. Along with the farmers, they were caught in a vicious cycle of fertilize – water – fertilize – water. Spraying pesticides and fungicides because we watered so much!
As all of this water was being used, underlying factors were causing a severe decline in the health of our landscape. The years of synthetic fertilizer use contaminated our soil and streams, destroyed microbial life and caused chemical deposits to build up in the soil across our land while leaching into our waterways caused ecological damage. The result left plants unable to sustain themselves. Years of applying synthetic fertilizers and the subsequent practice of frequent, shallow watering caused soil compaction and salt-induced drought. The natural elements that promote soil health and sustainability had been destroyed. While we concerned with improving color, growing bigger blooms, and reaping larger harvests, we didn’t realize that our actions were destroying the health of the soil and our life.
WHO WATERS THE FOREST?
Have you ever wondered, “Who fertilizes the grasslands and meadows?” OR, “How does the forest survive without irrigation?” The answer is simple. If left alone, nature is supremely designed to take care of itself. When we begin altering nature for profit’s sake, a great imbalance occurs. For generations before the advent of synthetic fertilizers, the farmer used what we now call organics in the planting fields. I can remember, as a child, mixing manure and other waste material on the farm and spreading the mixture on fields with a spreader. It was effective and increased crop yields, but it was messy and hard to work with. My nickname was “Stink” for years!
J.L. Rodale reintroduced the world to organic gardening and started the return of getting back to nature in 1942 when he published a magazine called Organic Farming and Gardening. The magazine came out during a time when chemical fertilizers were thought of, by many, as the future of agriculture. Consequently, Rodale’s thesis that the health of our soil directly affects the health of our society was widely misunderstood and often dismissed.
Those who adopted his organic approach began creating more sustainable landscapes requiring less water. Plants were growing more naturally and not forced to perform at unnatural levels. The use of organics has evolved since then, but synthetics have continued to be the first choice of most farmers and homeowners because of their availability and the increased crop production and harvest they initially yield. Lack of knowledge regarding the multifaceted nature of plant health contributes, too, to the prevalence of chemicals. The need for instant gratification and desire for increased profits cast a shadow on what was best for our Earth and our health.
WHAT DO THE EXPERTS SAY?
According to a recent report which compiled the work of 700 scientists, unless we change the way we use water and increase “water productivity” (i.e., more crop per drop), within 25 years we will not have enough water to feed the world’s growing population.
Proposed solutions may include better water storage. Ethiopia, which is typical of many sub-Saharan African countries, has a water storage capacity of 38 cubic meters per person. In contrast, Australia has almost 5,000 cubic meters per person. Yet, this amount may also be inadequate in the face of current climate change. While there will be a need for new large and medium-sized dams to deal with this critical lack of storage in Africa, other simpler solutions are also part of the equation.
These solutions include the construction of small reservoirs, sustainable use of groundwater systems including artificial groundwater recharge and rainwater harvesting for smallholder vegetable gardens. Improved year-round access to water will help farmers maintain their food security using simple supplementary irrigation techniques. The redesign of both the physical and institutional arrangements of some large and often dysfunctional irrigation schemes will also bring the required productivity increases. Safe, risk-free reuse of wastewater from growing cities will also be needed. Of course, these actions need to be paralleled by the development of drought-tolerant crops and the provision of infrastructure and facilities to get fresh food to markets.
Current estimates indicate that we will not have enough water to feed ourselves in 25 years’ time; by then the current food crisis may turn into a perpetual crisis. Just as in other areas of agricultural research and development, investment in the provision and better management of water resources has declined steadily since the green revolution. Water scientists are raising a warning flag that significant investment in both research & development and water infrastructure development are needed if dire consequences are to be avoided.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Although we’ve included some useful concepts, we would feel remiss if we didn’t give you additional practical tips for your backyard. Here are 14 tips on water management for a sustainable landscape:
(1) Populate your landscape with native plants and self-sustaining plants and understand the different plant types and their growing cycles.
(2) Create a sustainable growing environment that requires less water, by inoculating the root zone at planting – adding amendments to the soil that include endo and ecto-mycorrhizae. These naturally occurring fungi attach to the root tips and enable the plant to feed on water and nutrients far outside the normal root zone. In addition, these fungi help to protect the roots from a soil-borne disease that can destroy the plant's root mass. My diverse formula of Amazon Soil and Growzilla both contain these natural fungi.
(3) Improve soil health for deeper root development. Some organic fertilizers contain living microorganisms that work within the soil to increase porosity. Also, adding diverse sources of organic matter can increase microbial activity in the soil food web to boost this process. Healthy soil allows for deep root development and can reduce the need for supplemental watering up to 75% or more.
(4) Plant in the right place on your property. Soil quality, pH levels and available sun all impact the natural health of your plants. For instance, roses need 6 hours of sun, minimum, and prefer morning sun. Select the best place on your property where plants can thrive with less attention.
(5) Feed your plants appropriately. For example, roses have different needs throughout the year. Don’t expect them to be at their best if you feed them the same food in the fall as you do in spring.
(6) Apply fresh mulch to help retain moisture. Never more than 3 inches and never touching your plants.
(7) Understand the natural water flow patterns in your landscape and plant accordingly. Do you normally get enough rain to feed your plants or do they require significant irrigation?
(8) Water only in the early morning hours to prevent rapid evaporation.
(9) Avoid overwatering and under watering. Make sure you check your soil for the moisture depth using a coring tool. Just because the ground is dry on the surface doesn’t mean that it’s dry several inches below the surface. A standard coring tool will enable you to check moisture levels a foot or more below the soil surface.
(10) Use a rain gauge to monitor how much water is applied to eliminate wasteful runoff and overwatering.
(11) When watering, do not water the plant – drench the soil taking special care to keep the plant dry. Foliar “splashing” can increase the occurrence of disease and easily spread other diseases from one plant to another.
(12) Supplemental irrigation should come from stored water containers such as rain barrels. Minimize artificial irrigation unless absolutely necessary and under your complete control – limit the use of automatic timers.
(13) Stay away from chemical or synthetic fertilizers. These products only cause your plant to require more water and only address the top growth and development of the plant. They do nothing to improve root structure or soil health, and these two things are critical to reducing water use.
(14) Limit the use of pesticides and chemicals. Using excessive chemicals to achieve false results will lead to decline and the ultimate downfall of the urban landscape. Proper usage will actually help build the plants’ immune system and help it to protect itself from disease. Try my product line. I have spent a lifetime creating them for you and me.
Water conservation has become an important part of our daily lives today. Current city water restrictions have forced homeowners in most areas to use less water and become more aware of their usage. Watering lawns on specified days of the week and prohibiting car washing have helped to conserve water through times of drought, but these first-line efforts are not enough to prevent serious shortages. The average American uses approximately 160 gallons of water each day. A lot of this is wasted through leaky faucets that waste up to 100 gallons a day, flushing the toilet using 5-6 gallons of water per flush, or running 5 gallons of water down the drain while we brush our teeth. Wasting water is just one of the problems. Pollution has destroyed many of our freshwater sources. Industries release over 197 million pounds of toxic chemicals in our waterways on an annual basis. Other chemicals like phosphorus, a main component of fertilizers and detergents, have recently been shown to contaminate waterways.
The awareness of contamination has given birth to the no-phos movement, which promotes managing and conserving freshwater, and reducing the amount of chemicals we use. Many of us are looking for new ways to reduce water use and to reuse water. Homeowners can capture water with rain barrels or similar water-holding chambers to reuse within the landscape. By placing an object in the toilet tank to displace water, you can reduce the amount of water used with each flush. Taking short showers versus drawing a bath, which uses about 36 gallons of water, will also reduce consumption.
There are also many proponents of using gray water for irrigating landscapes. Gray water is non-industrial wastewater generated from domestic processes such as dishwashing, laundry and bathing. Gray water usage could help conserve a tremendous amount of drinking water. However, there are many restrictions and guidelines to adhere to when incorporating gray water into your landscape watering protocol. The average consumer may not have the background or knowledge required to maintain these guidelines, so it’s best to speak with a professional or someone in your local government before making this decision. Some detractors of using gray water counter that the common detergents, soaps, and cleaners used today do not support the use of gray water and, therefore, greatly reduce the amount that can be used safely.
Conservation and sustainable growth practices are decisions for all of us to make.
We hope you make the right choice.
“Join the Revolution. Grow Organic!”