GOING GREEN: Kelowna’s Water Smart Program
This article by Neal Klassen is reprinted from the Winter 2006-2007 issue of Watermark Magazine, the journal of the British Columbia Water & Waste Association:
In the city of Kelowna, the colour of water conservation is green. Kelowna residents use about 75 million litres of water a day to keep their lawns green. The money that may be required for future capital improvements to keep up with that demand, well, that is a lot of green too.
That is why, 10 years ago, the City of Kelowna implemented universal water metering and a major water conservation public education program. Since then, overall water consumption is down 20%, despite a 25% increase in population over the same period.
Don Degen, the City’s water and drainage manager, oversees the Water Smart water conservation program, and he attributes its success to effective water rates and extensive social marketing.
Data from water meters installed in 1996 made it clear that residential lawn watering was driving peak demand, so that became the focus of the water conservation program. After a series of focus groups with Kelowna homeowners, it became apparent that there were three key reasons why residents used so much water: 1) poor soil conditions; 2) inefficient use of automatic irrigation systems; and 3) lack of education.
The Water Smart program responded to each of these issues with unique programs and services. First, a costshared soil amendment program was introduced. Homeowners could purchase compost and Water Smart delivered and spread it. The compost helps the soil retain moisture, which can reduce irrigation needs by 25-30%. Next, free irrigation system audits were offered. This is a walk-through inspection of the irrigation system with the homeowner. Water Smart staff members, who now conduct more than 300 audits a year, point out where improvements and repairs can be made. Some homeowners have reduced their irrigation almost 80% by making small changes to their irrigation system and timings.
Through it all, public education has been at the forefront, targeted mostly to the highest water users. There are public presentations, direct mailings, brochures, radio commercials and the award-winning Water Hog television commercials.
But, public education efforts can only go so far. Two years ago, an inclining block rate was introduced, and the per cubic meter charge in the upper blocks will continue to rise until high water users get the message.
The future: going after the lawn
Because of Kelowna’s semi-arid climate, the Water Smart program is modeled after water conservation programs in the southwestern United States, such as California, where some water suppliers pay their customers to remove their lawns. That may well be in the future for Kelowna residents.
In the meantime, the utility is experimenting with different varieties of drought tolerant grasses. Several homeowners volunteered to have their yards seeded with Eco-Lawn, which uses about 50% less water than traditional turf. So far, the grass is growing well and the homeowners are happy. The lawn at the Kelowna public library was replaced with Zoysia Grass, a heat-loving species that has great potential if it can survive the Okanagan winters.
Another interesting experiment is the use of compost tea to reduce thatch and improve moisture retention. Volunteers with at least two inches of thatch had their lawns sprayed with a special liquid brewed in compost. The liquid contained bacteria and fungi that ‘eat’ the thatch and it worked remarkably well. After just one application, the thatch on some volunteer properties was reduced from two inches to zero.
Even with all of this – the water rates, and the social marketing programs – there are other plans in the works that are necessary to reduce peak demand further. Some of
these include bylaws that would require a certain percentage of drought-tolerant landscaping for all new construction, and moisture sensors for all irrigation systems.
The bottom line is that the look of Kelowna may change in the future. This is not necessarily a bad thing; it has been shown in cities like Phoenix and Tucson that Xeriscaping is an attractive alternative to traditional landscaping. Residents of Kelowna will have to accept that, or pay the price for growing grass in the desert.
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Posted June 2009