Water Woes

June 11, 2008 - 09:30

Editor’s Note: As the industry continues to grapple with water management and conservation issues, GPN aims to spark more dialogue — and share important information — regarding this crucial topic. This is the first of a two-part series, written by members of the North American Horticulture Supply Association’s (NAHSA) Water Issues Task Force, providing growers with information they can use now to prepare for challenging times ahead.

To say that water is becoming an increasingly serious issue across the country is simply stating the obvious. The combination of drought, increased demand and the realization that our withdrawals are outpacing natural recharge, coupled with anxiety over the quality of water for both humans and natural habitats, is resulting in levels of concern unprecedented to most of us living today. While it may be tempting to think of these issues as unusual and hopefully temporary, in reality, they are — to a large extent — the result of many years of habitual practices and societal changes on many fronts. As such, they’re not going to go away quickly. In fact, they probably will not go away at all.

Problem Sources

As suggested by the Thomas Fuller quote to the left, we tend not to value water while we have it. Most people, even those who are careful not to waste water as they are using it, never question that there will be water available. As long as water runs when the tap is turned on, the thought of dwindling available water — or the Earth’s “water tank” getting low — doesn’t cross people’s minds.

Because we don’t have readily visible water gauges that show us that we are getting low or how much more quickly the tank is emptying as demand grows, many have a hard time grasping the extent of these water issues. That is, until we reach a tipping point, such as an extremely dry year or a small fish or unexpected restrictions as policymakers aim to “droughtproof” their locales.

It is interesting to note what often happens at this point: Various groups become acutely aware of their need for water — including those of us in the various green industries — and begin to argue about our “right” to have the water we need for our businesses and interests. While our industries certainly should have the right to equal representation and treatment in the face of water-related policies, there is an aspect to the argument that suggests that we do not fully understand the situation.

In the simple economic terms of supply and demand, the situation is that demand is increasing while supply is not. It may, in fact, be dwindling because the use rate is greater than the replacement rate. Arguing that we have a right to what we need when there is simply not enough to go around at current use rates is not an effective solution.

A More Sustainable Way Forward

More than just trying to make the case that we have a right to the water we need, we should be putting energy toward adopting practices that allow us to operate with less water along with participation in the discussion on policy development. It is both valid and vital to argue for policy that is fair to our industries and helps achieve the very necessary goal of sustainable water supplies in our local areas. To achieve this goal, everyone must work toward water conservation and water-quality preservation. The greenhouse and nursery industry, along with green industry professionals, are in a position to play a very active role here, for the sake of our businesses and because we have the potential to influence the practices of our consumers as well.

The cover letter to the Green Industries of Colorado (GreenCO) document, “Green Industry Best Management Practices (BMPs) for the Conservation and Protection of Water Resources in Colorado,” published in 2004, contains the following: “The Green Industry was hit hard by drought restrictions during 2002 and 2003. The drought has been a wake-up call for Green Industry professionals and communities alike, emphasizing that water conservation must become a way of life in Colorado, all the time, not just during drought.”

We don’t need psychologists to tell us that few people like change, yet change is usually needed to solve problems. Smart people, even if they hate change, know that ignoring a real problem almost never results in it going away. Water supply and quality issues are real problems, and they are not going away soon.

The good news is that the amount of information and resources available to help growers operate more water-efficiently are increasing and promise some significant water savings for growing operations and consumer water use. In addition, many of the practices that growers can employ and suggest to their consumers are not difficult and have a good return on investment.

Information and Tools

Water issues are receiving increased attention by various entities in the greenhouse industry, including the North American Horticultural Suppliers Association (NAHSA) Water Committee, a Nursery and Floriculture Common Interest Group within the Irrigation Association, and the Water Education Alliance for Horticulture. A common theme is to help growers be more water wise through access to information. A related goal is for the greenhouse and nursery industry to be better equipped to participate in discussions related to water access for growing operations. These and other entities are working and looking to collaborate on programs, tools and information that will enable the industry to improve knowledge and practices now and be better prepared for the future.

Meanwhile, as these efforts take shape, there are information sources and practices currently available to growers right now to reduce water waste and, as a result, practice and promote successful horticulture with less total water use. These practices may also work to growers’ benefit as regulations are developed and imposed.

Best Management Practices

The BMP manual mentioned above is one source of information that is available to growers. The Colorado document (which can be found at www.greenco.org/bmp_list.htm) also has an accompanying bilingual training course (in Spanish and English). It is one of the most complete and practical BMP manuals for greenhouse and nursery producers. It also contains information for garden centers, which wholesale growers can pass on to retail outlets and consumers.

Another useful source of water management information that helps growers assess their current practices can be found in the University of Georgia’s version of the Greenhouse*A*Syst Publication Series. The *A*Syst series is part of a national program supported by several United States Department of Agriculture agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency in collaboration with universities designed to help various groups assess and better manage their natural resource use. The greenhouse series provides a way for growers to voluntarily evaluate their practices and make plans for changes.

At the time of this writing, it seems that only the University of Georgia and Michigan State University have greenhouse versions of the *A*Syst publications. The University of Georgia series is most focused on water consumption and quality and contains information on management practices as well an outline for self-assessment. Bulletins 1274 through 1279 are the most pertinent. Unfortunately, they are not published together, so the best way to find them is to do an online search for “Greenhouse*A*Syst” followed by one of the bulletin numbers from 1274 to 1279.

There are other state and regional BMP documents with varying levels of detail and pertinence to water conservation and protection. The new Nursery and Floriculture Common Interest Group within the Irrigation Association, in collaboration with a Water Committee of NAHSA, is currently working on compiling a list of available BMPs by state and region. Growers can do an online search to find out what is available near them and use them to review current practices and take action to improve efficiency now.

An Ongoing Challenge — and Opportunity

While the issues of water conservation and management — and their implications on the green industry and society as a whole — are unlikely to go away anytime soon, growers have an opportunity to take action now and prepare themselves for an ongoing challenge.

The second part of this series will delve more into the “how,” analyzing specific ways growers can curb their water usage, increase efficiency and help ensure the longevity and vitality of our industry. Look out for more information on modern irrigation technology, understanding the changing dynamics of growing media, wise watering practices, plant selection, education, training and even policymaking. The more information you arm yourself with, the better chance your business — and this industry — has to survive unprecedented water woes.

About The Author

Demie Moore of Aquatrols, Fred Harned of Netafim USA and Rick Bechtel of McConkey Co. are members of the North American Horticultural Suppliers Association’s (NAHSA) Water Issues Task Force. For more information, visit www.nahsa.org.

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