Overcoming Drought Part I: Fighting the Hype

June 11, 2002 - 11:40

The media can seem downright demonic when it comes to drought, but with some effort, you can make a difference by educating both legislators and consumers about gardening and watering requirements.

On a Sunday morning in Somewhere, America, one of the
customers that buys from the garden center you supply reads these headlines:
“Spring rain only puts a dent in Eastern drought”; “New
Mexico governor declares drought emergency”; “Maine residents fear
worst is yet to come”; New York City isn’t so splashy these dry
days”; Dry Southwest, East at high risk for wildfires”;
“Drought emergency is in Maryland’s future.” Raising her eyes
from the newspaper, she feels her throat constrict as a slight panic attack
ensues. She turns on the television, only to hear that the governor has imposed
water restrictions. Fearful, she peeks outside the window to make sure the sky
isn’t raining insects or that plague-ridden bodies don’t litter the
streets. She imagines shriveled-up leaves dropping from the trees and her
now-blooming tulips drooping. She envisions judgment day. She wonders if her
days of planting water-guzzling impatiens in hedonistic bliss have come to a
dramatic end. Making a trip to the garden center to buy the annuals she was
going to fill her garden with suddenly seems like just too costly a risk.

Morbid media

“So far, the season’s not been very good,”
said Deborah Sweeton, president of Techni-Growers Greenhouses, Warwick, N.Y.
“It’s early, so we’re hopeful, but wholesale and retail are
down. Some of it’s due to weather — it’s been very cold in
New York so far, and we’ve had a lot of days of rain, but the frustrating
thing is they’re still saying we’re down 15 inches. Even though we
had three inches in two days earlier this week, the news story is that
there’s still a drought. The media is killing us.”

Sweeton is fortunate that her operation sits on top of an
aquifer and that she doesn’t have to worry about not having enough water
for her own production. In the town where she lives, there aren’t any
water restrictions. For the garden center customers she serves in a neighboring
New York county and an affluent county in Northern New Jersey, however,
it’s a different story. The reservoirs in both states are 20 percent
below normal, so the authorities haven’t yet lifted the mandatory water
restrictions — restrictions that, in some cases, prohibit even garden
centers from watering their own stock. Consequently, they’ve not taken
the normal volume of material from Techni-Growers, consumers have been scared
out of planting, and Sweeton can only remain optimistic that her stock will
just take a little longer than usual to sell.

Techni-Growers is 60 percent retail and 40 percent
wholesale, so Sweeton has regular contact with retail customers. They’ve
been telling her they’re not planting — at least not annuals and
nursery stock. Container plants, however, are still strong sellers. “I
just don’t think [the media] should be scaring people out of planting,
which is what they’re doing right now,” she said, her tone
effectively conveying her frustration.

Having the nightly news and other media outlets tell you
daily that there is a drought and that water use is looking bleak is like
having Alan Greenspan announce that the country is in a recession —
people react accordingly, even if they don’t fully understand the
situation. They spend less. In this case, however, the currency is water.
“I think the problem is that given the amount of time the media has to
make these stories, they have neither the time nor the inclination to try to
get across the fact that things are operating on different timescales,”
offered Rich Tinker, a drought expert for the Climate Prediction Center,
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). To extrapolate from
this, things can easily get blown out of proportion. “A lot of attention
is paid to the East right now, but I’d say conditions are worse farther
out in the interior West right now and in South Texas. It’s a combination
of factors: On one level, if you go back in history, you’ll see periods
of drought and periods of wetness as far as the United States as a whole is
concerned. It’s kind of a cyclic thing; we’re in a droughty sort of
period right now and have been for the past four years,” Tinker added,
nonchalantly.

Wondering why

So why is it that so many regions, especially the East
Coast, are experiencing drought conditions? According to Scott Stephens, a
meteorologist for the National Climatic Data Center, NOAA, “There are a
number of factors at play. We had a very mild winter along the Eastern seaboard
and a persistent high-pressure system that really kept the stronger systems and
funnel systems from impacting the Eastern states. A lot of the heavier rain over
the winter season and into the spring has been in the Central states, from the
Tennessee Valley up into the Great Lakes. You can also trace it back to the
lack of land-falling hurricanes over the past couple of years.” Though
surely no one misses a devastating hurricane, they do serve a purpose: They can
be an important source of rainfall across the United States from summer into
fall.

Another reason for the drought pattern has to do with La
Niña, the opposite of El Niño, which translates to warmer-than-normal
winter temperatures in the Southeast, cooler-than-normal temperatures in the
Northwest and dry conditions in the East. El Niño, on the other hand,
typically means increased rainfall across the Southern section of the United
States and Peru, and drought in the West Pacific. Both of these weather
patterns have been around since before man even created a word for
“climate,” but we’ve only been able to accurately measure
them for the past 30-40 years.

What about global warming? Since it can take 20 years to
identify a climate pattern, and global warming is a fairly new phenomenon that
only dates back to the late 1970s, it’s difficult to say whether or not
it is responsible for widespread drought conditions. According to Steve Hu,
assistant professor of atmospheric sciences, School of Natural Resource
Sciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “It takes longer than one cycle
[to evaluate a weather pattern]; in three or four cycles you can start thinking
of evaluating the warming effect on precipitation.”

Coincidentally, the frequency of El Niño has
increased over the past 20 years, right alongside scientists’ observation
of global warming. Whether or not they are linked, however, is anyone’s
guess, and even the experts can’t seem to say for sure. “It could possibly
be a cycle, and it could be related to climate change,” said Stephens
regarding the cause of the drought. “It’s hard to say.”

Learning from the past, from others

Stephens says that we’ve been in a La Niña
pattern since the latter part of 1998, but we may be heading into a weak El
Niño in late summer and early fall. If this occurs, it could bode well
for increased precipitation in the South.

In Georgia, Mike Cunningham is slightly more accustomed to
dealing with drought conditions than Sweeton is in New York. He grows annuals,
perennials, shrubs, trees and drought-tolerant plants. During the winter
months, he and his staff at Country Gardens Nursery tried to get people to
plant their trees to establish them for the spring months so they could better
survive the dry summer. Like Sweeton, his production is not suffering from
current drought conditions because he has his own well and isn’t affected
by restrictions on municipal water. He does, however, rely on nature to
constantly replenish his well. “The spring has not been affected by the
drought, even though we’re still behind a couple of inches right now
— we’ve had rain from April through the first of May, so some of
the reservoirs are down, but they’re not as bad as they were. But
probably this summer, during our traditionally dry months, that’s when we
might feel the effects of it,” he explained.

Though he hasn’t seen much of a difference in buying
patterns this spring, he did last summer. There were water restrictions, and
people bought fewer plants, putting off their purchases until the weather
improved. Without a change in either regulations or consumer perceptions,
Cunningham and other Georgia growers could be headed for the same fate this
summer; even though El Niño could be on its way, late summer
precipitation would be too late to help growers recoup costs lost from drought
consequences earlier in the season. That’s why Cunningham recently became
a part of the Georgia Urban Agriculture Coalition (GUAC), a sort of
horticultural trade alliance that bands together professionals from the
nursery, landscape, turf and other horticulture sectors. The group is taking a
proactive approach by trying to work with the Georgia EPA, which sets
regulations for water. Providing professional recommendations for the wording
used in water restriction regulations — with the landscaping homeowner in
mind — is one of the most valuable contributions they can make to protect
the Georgia horticulture industry.

The latest water regulation imposed on Georgians involves house
numbers: those with odd-numbered houses water one day, even numbers the other.
The GUAC noticed something strangely counterproductive about it. “One
thing we’re trying to do is offer alternatives for conserving
water,” Cunningham said. “When this odd/even thing came out, we
believed people who might not even water anyway would do so because it’s
their day. We’re trying to educate the public as far as how often they
really need to water their lawns or shrubs or flowers; maybe they don’t
need to water every other day, even though that’s the system.”

The GUAC is spreading its educational message through local
newspaper articles, gardening books and the radio. “The greatest thing we
can do right now to help keep sales from being affected is to educate the public.
We also have to look at other parts of the country that have been dealing with
this thing a lot longer than we have, like out West,” Cunningham said.
“There are some innovative things going on out there that we’ve
been looking at. Instead of this odd/even system, you’re rewarded for the
conservation of water. Irrigation systems in the landscapes are becoming more
high-tech, setting plants on timers by how many hours of water the plant needs
per day. They assess the soil, weather and water, and that’s programmed
into a computer, which adjusts the amount of water required by actual need, not
some timing schedule.”

One of the things being done “out West” to help
keep the message of drought from negatively impacting the industry is promoting
drought-tolerant plants (see sidebar, page 36). According to Reiner Krueger,
technical services manager, Monrovia, Azusa, Calif., many communities now
require the use of drought-tolerant greenery for landscaping. “I think a
lot of times the media will distort the severity of things and that can
generate mass hysteria, when maybe all it takes is switching over to more
shrubbery, less grass,” he said. Instead of the media’s interpreted
gardening-or-nothing approach, growers can help by promoting plants that will
present the least drain on precious water sources.

Positive pressure, positive press

The disconnect between watering information for plants and
lawmakers that has resulted in uninformed regulations in some parts of the
country and doom-and-gloom media is what prompted a Maryland grower to try to
stem the tide. In January, Maryland politicians were talking repeatedly about
the lack of water and rainfall residents had experienced over the past 3-5
months. The water table was down, the reservoirs were down, they said. In
February, the water volume increased, and yet every night, the weather reports
droned on about drought.

Gary Mangum of Bell Nursery began to fear that water
restrictions might coincide with the beginning of the spring planting season.
He thought it was a good idea to address the problem politically, to provide
information to politicians and persuade them of the value of gardening. Since
Bell had worked with a government relations firm in the past, Mangum contacted
them and found out that for a certain amount of money he could hire them on
retainer and gain access to the governor, the Department of the Environment and
the Department of Agriculture. Finding mutual interest in this issue among
other growers, Mangum contacted the Maryland Greenhouse Growers’
Association about coordinating a meeting for interested growers. An email got
the ball rolling. “We thought we might have 15 or 16 growers show up, but
we had over 70 show up for a meeting that was called with just a few
days’ notice. From that, we generated almost $40,000 in voluntary
contributions and were able to engage the government Á relations firm
for a year, as well as a media relations person,” Mangum said.

The government relations firm successfully opened the doors
to the governor’s office, so Mangum and others were able to sit down
face-to-face with the staff people that were advising him. Though the dreaded
water restrictions were enacted in late March, the governor was very supportive
of gardening during a press conference and subsequent media interviews.
“One of the first questions he was asked was whether he would plant his
own garden given the dire straits related to water. He paused for just a
second, and said yes, absolutely he would,” Mangum added.

The restrictions were sensitive to the needs of the
industry, a fact Mangum doubts would have been the case had they not been able
to make the political contacts that they did. Because of Mangum and the
MGGA’s meeting, the Maryland Department of the Environment now features
resident watering tips on its Web site that Mangum and others created.
“It gives people good, common-sense tips for gardening and conserving
water at the same time,” he said.

Additionally, Mangum and the MGGA have had 2-3 interviews
with evening news stations as well as a live, 4- to 5-minute segment on a
morning news program. “Interestingly enough,” Mangum reflected,
“by having the media relations person involved, we’ve been able to
take what they’ve wanted to talk about, which is drought and gardening,
and change it around to just gardening and not really talk about drought at
all. We’ve had a lot of positive media coverage that would not have been
possible had we not engaged the media relations person.”

Don’t let the industry become a victim of uninformed
water restriction regulations and negative media in your community. Promote
drought-tolerant plants, turn your knowledge into positive press for consumers
and help legislators understand the importance of gardening. If you need
assistance with political involvement, ANLA offers tips on its Web site
(www.anla.org) to help growers promote landscapes as a wise use of water to
local decision-makers and consumers in its “Be Water-Wise” section.

Editor’s note: Next month’s article will discuss
methods and products for reclaiming irrigation water.

About The Author

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor of GPN.

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