Drought tolerant planting saves water

Keith and Ricki Lougheed have an eye-catching yard surrounding the home they built in 2003 in the Cougar Ridge development near Capitol State Forest in the Delphi Valley.

But the rural Thurston County couple don’t have a single blade of grass to mow, nor do they have a lawnmower.

The Lougheeds are part of a small but slowly growing segment of the South Sound population that eschews the notion that big, well-manicured lawns are desirable.

In the lawn’s place, they have planted hundreds of drought-tolerant, low-maintenance trees, shrubs, berries, bunch grasses and perennial plants – native and non- native alike – making their home the only one in the 80-lot subdivision without a lawn.

While the sprinklers run day and night at neighboring homes, Lougheed rarely waters the landscaping on his half-acre lot. If the plants can’t survive on rainfall and stormwater runoff, he simply replaces them with ones that can.

“It’s a lot of trial and error – I call it controlled chaos,” Lougheed said of his approach to his back and front yards. “But this is more environmentally friendly than anyone else.”

It’s not unusual for water use in the summer months to double or triple from wintertime usage in the South Sound urban area. Most of the increase is linked to outdoor irrigation, including water poured on lawns to keep them green.

“I just don’t care for the look of a lawn,” Lougheed, a semi-retired auditor, said. “You don’t see lawns in nature.”

For water resource managers charged with making sure water supplies keep up with demand, Lougheed’s words are music to their ears. Urging and convincing residents to use less water in the summer when demand spikes is one of their ongoing challenges.

Faced with steady population growth and limits on new water supplies, Lacey employs a summer outdoor watering schedule that allows water customers with odd-numbered addresses to water on Saturdays, Mondays and Wednesdays and even addresses on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Fridays are used to let the water reservoirs recover.

“It’s definitely been beneficial,” city water resources manager Peter Brooks said of the water conservation program, now in its fourth year. Typically, the city’s water reservoir capacity recovers on Friday from 10 million gallons to 13 million gallons.

On a hot summer day, Lacey can handle anticipated demand of 15.5 million gallons per day. If usage were to top 17.5 mgd, it could lead to mandatory cutbacks in water service, Brooks said.

Olympia and Tumwater water officials said they expect water supplies to keep pace with demand this summer too.

Some Lacey neighborhoods are starting to cut back on watering of their common areas, allowing the grass there to go dormant and brown, Brooks said.

“As I drive around, I’m seeing more and more lawns going dormant in the summertime,” noted Chris Jackson, Olympia’s water conservation program manager.

But its still unusual to see new housing developments without lawns, Brooks said.

“It’s cheaper to put in turf than plants – that’s the bottom line,” he said.

Olympia, Lacey and Tumwater have water conservation plans in place that call for a 0.8 percent to 1 percent reduction in use per hookup per year.

The City of Olympia expects to reduce outdoor water use by 13.6 million gallons per year by 2014 through such measures as technical assistance for water customer irrigation systems, rebates when customers purchase water-efficient irrigation systems, and free rain sensors.

Simply raising public awareness about why and how to conserve water could lead to even greater overall water savings – roughly 60.6 mgd by 2014, according to the Olympia water system plan adopted last year. This includes:

 • Watering in the early morning or late evening hours when water evaporation is at a minimum.

 • Recognizing that a healthy lawn doesn’t die if it isn’t watered – it just goes dormant until the fall rains return.

In arid regions of the nation, including Las Vegas, city water utilities are going to far greater lengths to conserve. One type of program pays customers to remove their lawns to reduce outdoor watering.

“It will probably be more than a decade or more before we start offering those kinds of programs here,” Jackson said.

Unlike city water customers, homes in the Cougar Ridge development aren’t hooked up to water meters and pay the same for their water, regardless of how much they use.

“People around here waste a lot of water on their lawns,” Lougheed said.

A 2003 state law would have required water systems such as the one serving Cougar Ridge to install meters by 2017, said Michael Dexel in the state Department of Health’s Office of Drinking Water.

But a King County Superior Court judge ruled last year that the metering requirement didn’t apply to privately owned water systems.

The case is on appeal and is expected to be heard by the state Supreme Court late this year or early 2010, Dexel said.

John Dodge: 360-754-5444