Laws for the land
Drought conditions in many parts of the country have forced communities to restrict water use in a variety of ways, such as limiting the days and times that residents and businesses may water their lawns. Other communities seeking greater reductions in water use have enacted “xeriscape,” or water-wise landscape, ordinances that limit the types or quantities of plants and grasses that may be used to landscape properties. “The xeriscape principles in some community ordinances means doing away with the use of grass, which demands a lot of water, and moving toward native plants, more mulching and drip irrigation systems,” says Buck Abbey, professor in the School of Landscape Architecture at Louisiana State University and noted author on landscape ordinances.
The term “xeriscape,” coined in 1981, is a combination of the Greek word xeros, which means dry, and landscape, and is a registered trademark of Denver Water, the water utility for the city and county of Denver. The term came out of a task force, which included Denver Water and local members of the academic and green industries, that developed seven principles of landscaping to conserve water and protect the environment.
Since then, many cities and counties in the Western and Southern United States have adopted the principles and required residential and commercial developers to follow them when designing their landscapes. While most xeriscape ordinances — such as those in Tucson, Ariz.; Lafayette, Colo.; and Volusia County, Fla., — are directed at landscape design, the aim is decidedly at saving water.
Where lawns are rare
By the time Tucson, Ariz., passed its xeriscape ordinance in 1990 and identified landscape requirements for commercial and multi-family housing, it was all but a formality. Homeowners and businesses in the city had begun using native plants that required less irrigation in the 1970s when traditional landscapes included lots of grass and high-water-use plants. “As peak demand concerns required conservation measures, the public naturally began to change the way they landscaped,” says Fernando Molina, conservation program manager for Tucson.
Tucson’s ordinance allows landscape designers to group plants according to water requirements. A high-water-use zone, called an oasis, is permitted, but it cannot be more than 10 percent of the total landscaped area. Outside of that area, only low-water-use plants are permitted. The city’s official plant list matches that of the state, and an advisory board reviews requests to add or remove plants from the list. “Designers are really beginning to deal with the problem in creative ways,” Molina says. “The secret to it is using native plants for a lot of color and variety.”
Builders are required to submit a landscape plan to make sure they comply with the land use code. Once construction is complete, the city’s Development Services Department performs a final inspection to ensure that the landscape installed matches the approved plan. Review of plans and inspections are paid for out of fees and the general fund. Tucson also offers a training program for landscapers and designers through the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension. “This is important because landscapers really control a lot of water use, and they need the skills to be able to do their job to make customers happy and still save water,” Molina says.
Tucson’s per capita water usage rate has decreased as a result of its landscaping ordinance. In 1974, the city’s per capita water usage rate was about 205 gallons per person per day, and now the rate has stabilized at about 165 gallons per person per day. “We attribute sustaining that low usage rate primarily to the change in landscape,” Molina says. “Tucson looks really different than the old days. Now, a front yard lawn is very rare here.”
A model ordinance
In nearby Colorado, a severe drought in summer 2002 motivated Erie and Lafayette, situated between Denver and Boulder, to draft a water-efficient landscape code. The cities secured a $32,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to develop a model ordinance for the state.
The intent of the ordinance, adopted by both cities in March 2004, is to regulate water use through efficient landscape design rather than water used annually. “If we end up back in a drought, this type of landscape can survive with limited water and not die like it did in 2002,” says Phillip Patterson, planning manager for Lafayette.
Much like Tucson’s xeriscape ordinance, Lafayette’s requires landscaped areas to be divided into individually irrigated hydro zones — high, medium, low and very low. A “high” hydro zone averages 20 gallons per square foot per season. Medium is about 10 gallons, low is three to five gallons, and very low only needs water to get established and then does not require regular irrigation. “The intent is to group plants based on their water needs within those individual hydro zones,” Patterson says. “We also didn’t want Blue Grass to be the enemy. We realized that Blue Grass sod was good at rebounding following a drought and that it was a really appropriate material for many uses, so we allowed for this in some places and made accommodations with more water efficient material in others.”
Lafayette’s landscape design provisions are targeted to commercial development as well as residential subdivision-type construction, where landscape design is already heavily regulated. The ordinance requires a minimum 15 percent landscaped area for commercial buildings. “Many commercial builders are going to save a tremendous amount on water use,” Patterson says. “It’s more work up front on the design, but in the end it’s better landscaping and saves water.”
Builders must submit a hydro zone map, and then the city verifies that the plants are matched to the appropriate zone. “First thing we do is have them show us, using a water calculation, that the landscaped area, on average, is not going to use more than 15 gallons per square foot per season of irrigation water — that is the maximum allowed by the ordinance,” Patterson says.
In the zones
Volusia County, Fla., also built its landscape ordinance around zones to allow for some sod. “The St. Augustine grass, which most people plant here, takes a lot of water, and people tend to over-water it as well,” says Stephen Kintner, environmental management director for Volusia County.
After determining that St. Augustine grass only needs about one inch of water per week, the county set its ordinance to require that one-half of a yard or other landscaped area can use one inch per week of water. Another quarter can use one-half inch each week, and the last 25 percent can get one-quarter inch of water per week. (No grass meets that standard.)
Like other communities, dwindling water supplies proved the impetus for the ordinance. “We have what’s called a sole-source aquifer,” Kintner says. “Basically all of our water comes from the rain that falls in the county.” That typically has been enough, but since the mid 1960s with soaring population growth, new development and an increase in the per capita consumption of water, the amount of available water for county use has been declining steadily.
Adopted in May 2004 and implemented July 1, Volusia County’s water-wise ordinance took three years to hone and implement. “We knew we needed to talk to people about this, so we laid out the framework for the ordinance and then took it on the road,” Kintner says.
The county met with target stakeholders, including developers, homebuilders, irrigation contractors, city organizations, city managers, environmental groups, the sod industry, homeowners associations and realtors. “We had at least 25 very public hearings and perhaps another 25 meetings with individuals and small groups,” Kintner says. “Everybody was worried about how it was going to impact them, so we had to answer a lot of questions.”
While existing landscaping is excluded, Volusia County’s ordinance applies to all new construction and re-landscaping or landscape expansion for private and public buildings, including homes. “We used lots of pictures of what yards would look like with this type of ordinance to educate the public,” Kintner says, “and they saw that it was different, but not bad.”
The county estimates that about 50 to 75 percent of the domestic water supply is used for irrigation, and it expects to save 25 to 50 percent of the water demand for new homes as a result of the ordinance. “That’s going to be at least 9 million gallons a day of saved water — the equivalent of water usage for about 26,000 homes,” Kintner says.
The county can draw a maximum of 72 million gallons a day from the aquifer, and currently it draws about 55 million gallons a day. “We are kind of boxed in, so we had to do something creative.” Kintner says. “This is only one part of the solution, but it buys us some time and takes a little pressure off the environment. People will eventually learn that they can have a beautiful yard that does not require the volumes of water we use today.”
As more communities face water shortages, they may find that landscape ordinances like Tucson’s and Lafayette’s can help reduce water consumption for irrigation. Professor Abbey cautions, however, that communities should ensure good landscape design with their ordinances, rather than just restrict water use. “Communities don’t just want to have a xeriscape ordinance without having a full set of landscape ordinances,” Abbey says. “The better community ordinances have general landscape requirements that cover things like planning of buffers, street yards, parking lots, open spaces and vehicular use areas following construction.”
Because xeriscaping may be an unfamiliar concept to property owners and developers, communities that enact the ordinances should provide plenty of education and training. Landscapers, designers and homeowners all need the tools and knowledge to implement the ordinance. “A big part of this is just getting people to begin to change their concept of what a landscape should look like,” Molina says. “It’s a whole different way of thinking about it.”
For model landscape and tree ordinances, visit www.greenlaws.lsu.edu. The Web site also offers a free CD on landscape ordinances, including on-site stormwater management, irrigation and xeriscaping.
Conni Kunzler is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.