WATER WISE

Technology, perception change conservation efforts

by Beth Lipscomb

There’s a collision going on in the Western United States: A collision between increasing population and water availability.

For Zachary Johnson, associate professor in the Colorado State University Department of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture, this means it’s more critical than ever to teach students about new ways to think about the environment and water usage in their careers, especially those studying to create built environments.

Years ago, when Johnson was a kid growing up in Southern Colorado, he was already conscious of the water problem. He recalls scenes familiar to anyone living in a rural, agricultural region: crop irrigation systems throwing water all over roads and into ditches, or running full tilt in the middle of a rainstorm. Even then, he didn’t like seeing so much waste of a valuable resource.

Now that he’s honed his craft and is training others to do the same, he sees it as his responsibility to ensure that up-and-coming landscape designers make water conservation a priority. Because in today’s world, landscape design is about more than creating aesthetically beautiful spaces. It’s about building areas where we can relax and allow our stresses to melt away, even if just for a few minutes.

And yet, this work also needs to be done responsibly.

Changing minds

To do it right, Johnson says, there’s a two-pronged approach. “We need to change people’s perceptions,” he explains, “and we need to implement smart technologies for water management.”

Plant selection is where water-wise landscaping begins. But so many of us have become accustomed to seeing large expanses of underutilized lawns, for example, that seeing plants that use less water – or hardscapes instead – is a sensory obstacle to overcome.

Many people don’t understand that there are many varieties of plants that use significantly less water than some of the traditional species seen in Colorado. But once we understand the difference these plants make and the reasons for their selection, we’re likely to appreciate them more.

As for making all landscapes more efficient, Johnson notes that water-saving technology is becoming more and more sophisticated and effective.

Far beyond simple timers to turn water on and off at certain times, the newer, smarter irrigation systems can check current weather, temperature, wind speed, and soil conditions to ensure the systems are running only when they need to be. “When this technology is used, it starts to really manage our water,” Johnson says,

And thanks to today’s cell phone technology, weather and irrigation stations around the world can be monitored remotely.

For instance, at CSU’s own Todos Santos Center in Baja Sur, Mexico, Johnson says, “We’ll be able to manage the irrigation from right here in Fort Collins. We’ll actually be able to collect and gather real-time weather and climatic data, monitor water consumption down to the liter, and receive text alerts if the system is suddenly using more or less water than usual. This will help us troubleshoot, right away, to see if there is damage to an irrigation line or if there’s anything else we need to address.”

“We’ll be able to manage the irrigation from right here in Fort Collins. We’ll actually be able to collect and gather real-time weather and climatic data, monitor water consumption down to the liter, and receive text alerts if the system is suddenly using more or less water than usual.”

What it means for us

The implications of such technology are huge. According to Johnson, at a major beverage company’s bottling facility in Denver, “This combination of changing human expectation and using smart irrigation technology helped us reduce their water consumption by 90 percent, saving hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per year.”

That means that as our perceptions change, and these systems become more and more heavily used across landscapes of all sizes, we can collectively conserve massive amounts of water. With simple monitoring tools, homeowners and businesses can save time and money on managing their landscapes too. “It’s going to become a situation where anyone with landscapes, big or small, will have access to this technology,” Johnson says.

And in the end, he says, our water will be saved for other things. “These approaches will reduce our need for water and will ensure there’s still water for us to drink every day.”

Can landscapes change lives?

We know built landscapes are beautiful, but are they truly functional too?

Zachary Johnson and Michael Steger, associate professor of applied social and health psychology, are working together to research this question. “There’s something about nature that we can point to – we know that it’s better for us,” says Steger. “But we don’t know exactly why that is.”

While there’s still a gap in empirical research to explain whether built environments have the same effects as natural ones, we know that being in proximity to trees, flowers, and growing things can and does have advantages.

“There’s a lot of research on this,” Johnson says. “For instance, if you’re in a hospital room where you can overlook trees, you’ll be discharged sooner. And if there are landscapes in your neighborhood, typically crime rates are lower.”

Overall, they’ve found improved well-being amid nature comes from exposure to beautiful places and from the personal discipline of appreciating where you are. They’re currently working on plans for developing that discipline in others, during a retreat to CSU’s Todos Santos Center.

“As we develop better skills for understanding the world around us, our well-being improves, no matter what our location,” Steger says.

In the meantime, Johnson’s focus on creating sustainable landscapes will ensure that we can all continue to enjoy and benefit from these thoughtfully designed spaces. 

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