Facing challenges in the irrigation industry

May 21, 2018 -  By

Water rules Regulation is one of the major challenges the irrigation industry faces.

The landscape industry faces its own water challenges, requiring unique solutions that are not always one-size-fits-all. In a recent Irrigation Association (IA) webinar titled “Landscape’s Water Challenges—Solutions from the Experts,” John Farner, IA government and public affairs director, and a panel of irrigation experts discussed some of the industry’s biggest current and future challenges.

The panel included Brent Mecham, IA industry development director; Carlos Michelon, water conservation program manager for the San Diego County Water Authority; and Brian Vinchesi, president of Irrigation Consulting in Pepperell, Mass.

Here’s a condensed version of their conversation.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest issue or hurdle facing the landscape irrigation
industry today?

Vinchesi: I think it’s geographic, but certainly where I am and in most of the country, it’s regulation. We find that regulation of irrigation is becoming more prolific and more strict. Surprisingly enough, it’s in the areas that have the most water, like New England, that the irrigation regulations are the most strict. In places with less water, like Arizona and Southern California, the regulations are less strict. That’s because in dry areas, like the West, irrigation gets a lot more respect than it does in wetter areas. Regulation throughout the country is the biggest hurdle we will face now and in the future.

Michelon: From my vantage point, to promote water use efficiency, there are a few key challenges. The first is we tend to relate to irrigation systems only by the mechanical systems that make the water flow, but it’s inextricably linked to the landscape as an interdependent system. There’s more to just understanding how the water flows to maximize water use efficiency overall. It’s understanding things like what plants are appropriate for the climate and design practices. That’s why we develop programs like the Sustainable Landscapes Program. One of the cornerstones of it is efficient irrigation, but it also brings in all of these other factors.

Another thing that goes with that is workforce development. We need resources to prepare the great men and women who manage our landscapes every day. Programs like our Qualified Water Efficient Landscaper is a great starting point for basic training for anyone who works with irrigation systems.

Mecham: Sometimes I think we are our own biggest obstacle. What I mean by that is things are changing really fast, and we have been very slow to respond in many cases. One of the challenges I see is there’s some great new technology that can enhance water management, yet our workforce is slow to adopt it and hasn’t fully embraced it or understood how to implement it. The consumer is aware of it, and the marketplace is actually asking for more of it.

We also have an outside influence coming in the form of regulators who say landscapes are using a lot of water, so we need to draft regulations. Sometimes these regulations are stupid because they have a lot of emotion, rather than science, behind them. And once they’re in place, they can be hard to change. Both of those things are happening at the same time and the industry is really struggling to keep up. It comes around to, “How can we become sustainable in what we’re doing?” That’s the request coming from regulators and from people who are forward thinking who say we have to be better stewards of our precious resources.

Q: Can you talk about the role organizations like the U.S. Green Building Council, the International Code Council and the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air Conditioning Engineers play in the future of the landscape irrigation industry?

Mecham: Most people in the landscape industry know there are certain codes and regulations we have to comply with, such as protecting the potable water supply. That is code that’s been in place to protect the interest of the public. With our controllers and wiring, we also deal with electrical code to protect people. So most building codes are about safety and the protection of people.

There is a new kind of code that’s come around about protecting the environment, called the green code, which takes the basic codes of protection and safety and expands them to protect the environment. With the green code, they have now gone outside the building envelope and are saying we have to look at the site and what we can do to protect the environment at the site. It gets a little bit complicated because most building officials are comfortable with building codes but are uncomfortable about what is going on with the site. It’s been under the jurisdiction of the planning and zoning commissions in the city or county, not the building department. We’re seeing a crossover of who has the authority.

Q: getting the public to see the value of the landscapes we grow is a challenge facing the industry. how do you think we can overcome that hurdle?

Vinchesi: I think education is the key. You have to educate people on why landscape is important, why maintaining the landscape with water is important and what the environmental benefits are. I think you can also educate them that some regulation makes sense.

For instance, Massachusetts has just finally started to implement some guidelines for rain shutoff requirements. It was passed by legislators four years ago and is just now coming to fruition. Pressure-regulating sprinklers make sense. Smart controllers make sense. With regulations, before you just kill it, look at the technologies out there to save water. Education is key—from the contractor to the distributor to the regulator to the property owner. It all has to come together.

Q: What’s your opinion on how to ensure that our workforce is knowledgeable and ready to do the job that needs to be done? Is licensing the answer or is it continuation of certifications?

Michelon: I think certification, or credentialing, is a necessary tool and appropriate resource to recognize and call upon qualified professionals.

It begins from a place of understanding everybody’s role in the marketplace as having a common stewardship responsibility. A license or certificate isn’t a guarantee that a site is going to be properly designed or managed, so let’s look beyond just the certification stuff.

I want to strongly support upgrading the requirements for licensure, trying to possibly require—where necessary—some type of certification so the people who have boots on the ground are properly trained and vetted. On the flip side, I also want to see more market recognition for those who maintain these high standards. We try to put the spotlight on the best practitioners who meet these standards.

Mecham: I think it’s complicated in the fact that licensing is typically about a company and its ability to conduct business. Certification is about the individual. In many places, you could use both. I think the really good companies understand the value of certified individuals, and they will recognize them with a higher paycheck and find some way to keep these people who know how to do the job. I think there is room in the marketplace for both.

Q: What’s the biggest opportunity for the landscape irrigation industry ahead of us?

Mecham: The biggest opportunity is to become really professional and know what you’re doing. The way the marketplace is shifting, you will be rewarded for knowing what you’re doing. I think the marketplace is going to start demanding it.

Michelon: I think it’s integration and the spirit of stewardship when it comes to managing landscapes. The opportunity is in trying to integrate with other practitioners so the products and services are presented in a more holistic approach.

Photo: ©istock.com/bradwieland

Emily Schappacher

About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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