Tackle Water Scarcity
By Sara Schaefer Munoz
From The Wall Street Journal Online
Now that many home builders have embraced "green" design and begun using energy-saving materials, developers -- and government regulators -- are focusing on another environmental concern: saving water.
So-called low water-use communities -- neighborhoods that use new technologies to save water -- are springing up from California to the Carolinas. Two new communities by KB Home in Riverside, Calif., feature standard water-saving devices like low-flow toilets as well as irrigation systems that sense moisture and don't over-water and natural landscaping that requires a minimum amount of water. Crescent Communities, in Raleigh, N.C., has put a number of water-saving features into recent projects, including the use of mulch or native prairie grass instead of traditional lawns. And Focus Property Group, in Las Vegas, has three new projects under way in the area that both minimize yard size and use similar high-tech sprinklers that water according to local weather patterns. The company is even using faux grass in two of its projects.
The projects come as local water supplies around the country are becoming more burdened by drought and development and as homeowners are becoming more environmentally conscious. At the same time, the federal government and local communities are promoting water-saving residential design. The Environmental Protection Agency last year launched a new program -- dubbed WaterSense -- to encourage water-efficient landscaping and products. Saving water is also a way for builders to earn points toward green building certification, which will be available for homes through the U.S. Green Building Council in July.
Many municipalities facing water shortages are beginning to act, too. Earlier this month, Florida water officials declared that the Everglades water body -- a source that supplies more than 800 million gallons a day -- could no longer support additional demand and cities like Fort Lauderdale and Miami must explore alternate sources to meet future water needs. In Austin, Texas, city officials are looking at long-term water capacity and will soon vote on proposals that would ban midday lawn watering and require builders to choose from a variety of low-water use grasses.
"Communities around the country are recognizing the importance of water efficiency," says Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water with the Environmental Protection Agency. "We're going from the green wave to the blue wave."
Advances in low-water technologies are also making the approach more appealing for homeowners. While low-water landscaping has been around for decades -- especially in dry environments -- it has moved beyond merely cactus and gravel. The latest in irrigation systems allows for maximum water-savings, and a wider availability and variety of low-water plants and even fake turf can better create lush-looking yards with less water. Meanwhile, the latest in low-flow toilets promise more water-savings -- minus the need for multiple flushes.
Developers are finding that including low-water features can help them more easily secure building permits. They also are using the features to differentiate themselves in a slowing housing market and to market their projects to environmentally conscious buyers. (KB Home, for example, tells buyers they can save as much as 30% on their water bills.)
Bill Flanigan, a security consultant from Vienna, Va., recently bought property in the Hidden Lake development by Crescent Communities, outside of Wake Forest, N.C. He and his wife were drawn to the location and the community's green features.
"We were impressed by the idea of low-water landscape use," he says. He hopes the community's detailed covenants on what can and cannot be planted maintain the natural feel of the place -- without proving too onerous for homeowners. "It's a bit of a mixed blessing," he says.
The EPA's new WaterSense program aims to encourage water conservation among manufacturers, consumers and developers. The program, similar to the government's energy-savings incentive program Energy Star, this year began offering certification for landscape and irrigation professionals that ensure they use water-efficient standards. According to the EPA, the average household uses as much as 30% of all water outdoors -- and more in drier climates. Nearly half of that water can be wasted through runoff or evaporation.
The program is also encouraging development of water-friendly products. Several weeks ago, it finalized labeling specifications for super low-flow toilets -- manufacturers can earn a WaterSense label if the toilet has a 1.28 gallon flush or less. The EPA says WaterSense certified toilets can save at least 4,000 gallons of water a year. Current low-flow toilets flush with 1.6 gallons and older toilets can use between four to six gallons of water per flush, the agency says.
While they have installed low-flow showerheads and toilets in most projects, developers say the real water-savings comes from curbing waste outdoors. Many feature high-tech irrigation systems in the common areas of their developments and offer them as upgrades to homeowners. For example, McStain Neighborhoods in Colorado will offer homeowners an upgrade to a "smart" system in its three new projects that senses rain and will cut back on water accordingly. They can also add a so-called weather station that will calculate local weather data for more precise watering. The systems run about $400 each.
Some companies are pushing grass that doesn't require water at all. Synthetic turf, traditionally the bright green stuff of professional football fields, is being marketed to residential lawns. SYNLawn, based in Dalton, Georgia, offers several polyethylene and nylon turfs that replicate grasses such as Bermuda, Rye and Bluegrass. Its latest products use blades of varying lengths and tufts of imitation thatch to make the grass look more realistic. The residential side of the business has been growing at about 20% for the past several years, says Michael King, the company's head of operations.
Dennis Swartzell, marketing director Mountain States Wholesale Nursery in Glendale, Ariz., makes frequent trips to the Mexican desert to research low-water plants that can add texture and color to a yard, such as new types of long, coarse bear grass or Red Yucca, which has spiky red or yellow flowers. Low-water landscaping doesn't have to be "a bunch of rocks with a cow skull and wagon wheel," says Mr. Swartzell.
Pia Ruigrok moved into a native landscaping Focus Property community in Las Vegas about two years ago. Though she was attracted to the idea of living surrounded by desert flora, she was used to the lush yards of northern California and said figuring out a low-water landscape for her yard was at first "kind of overwhelming."
But the 34-year-old homemaker studied a booklet on desert landscaping provided by Focus and checked out the development's demonstration garden. Eventually, she put in trees like the green-stemmed Palo Verde and flowering Texas Mountain Laurel -- as well as a small swath of fake grass for her 2-year-old daughter to play on.
"It's not like I'm Miss Environmental," she says. "But it's the desert. We have to try and do our best to conserve."
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