Saving Water: Mistakes and Triumphs

When I started with my native plant garden, saving water was one of my goals. I had a controller with 8 different zones installed and programmed it diligently, based on information from two designers. They had carefully computed how much my low-water and moderate-water plants would need, and how much my techline inline drip irrigation required. Each line was run on a different regimen depending on the type and location of the plants. Then, in late spring, some of the plants did not look too good, and I upped the water regimen a bit. Mr. Mouse did not even tell me how much water we were using that year, we just figured it would be better the next year.

The next year I made a mistake programming the front garden irrigation, and ended up irrigating that area, which used spray, twice as much as planned. In July/August we used almost a unit of water a day. That doesn't sound so bad until you realize that a unit is close to 700 gallons! We use 2.5 units a month in winter, so the garden was getting extravagant amounts. I fixed the programming problem, and things got better. Not great, better.

Next year I needed a new controller, and programmed that. I like to start the program in March at 40% of normal, then increase. The controller somehow managed misunderstand my programming, and increased the times I had programmed by ridiculous amounts. Unfortunately, I didn't notice that until the bill for July/August came in. Almost a unit of water a day. I felt cursed and vowed to put natives into the front garden, because the spray irrigation there was the biggest problem (It had been running 20 minutes three times a week, lawns can live on that).

In the fall, I finally replaced the lush front garden vegetation with natives. The design and remodel was great fun, as chronicled in the Great Front Garden Remodel posts. I asked the contractor to check that the front irrigation was working, but planned on not running it. Instead, I was going to hand water every 10 days or so in the first year, and cut back the years after.

To be safe, I called in my irrigation guy to check all the other lines. He found and fixed 4 small leaks in the back. For the front, I set the run times to zero on the controller. I set the other lines to a lower number than before because the drought was bad and I did want to do my part. Imagine my horror when the March/April water bill came in: 700 gallons a day! Again! I was aghast. I called the irrigation guy, who found that one of the front lines was gushing water into the ground, obvious when one looked at the meter. But how could that be? There were no start times?

Completely confused, I went through the controller programming and also set the start times to zero. Maybe the controller decided to run those lines for an arbitrary number of minutes at the designated start time? There was only one way to find out.

Every morning after I got up I walked outside, opened the concrete lid of the water meter, flipped the meter cover, and wrote down the number. To my great relief, I found that the numbers were well in line with what I had hoped for. Even when I had to hand water some areas after a few hot days, and even when I increased the percentage on the controller the numbers looked promising. Then came the May/June water bill. Finally! We were using around 200 gallons a day.

Now, that's still a lot of water, and I'd prefer to use even less. But the fruit trees and the Camelias need some water. The area under the redwoods needs water because drought-stricken redwoods can become unstable. The plants there are actually low to moderate water consumers (I never buy "regular" or "ample") but it's a pretty big area.

The Mediterranean mounds, shown in the first picture of this post, look attractive if a bit dry with the grasses, ceanothus, and manzanita in July. I'm handwatering new plants, the others are on their own. The salvias and agapanthus, are also attractive with minimal water.

The native current and elderberry further in the back are actually on a different line with more water, and I'm hoping for lush spring bloom.

Closer to the house, the Eriogonum fasciculatum gets afternoon shade and thrives, while the Salvia clevlandii has donned its grey summer foilage. I fill the water barrel fountain twice a week so the goldfish doesn't croak, but that's really very little water.

And I'm watering the pots by hand, enjoying the lush foilage of the ferns and other shade lovers.

Now that the first water bill indicates we've solved this problem, I've cut down the meter check to once a week or so. So far, no other problems have appeared, but I fully intend to stay on top of the water situation. I'll never trust that controller again, and waiting 2 months for the information about water use is just too long. So I'm hoping my vigilance will make it possible that I can enjoy beautiful plants in the garden while keeping water use at an appropriate level.


Country Mouse said…
Gosh, that's a scary story - you are very persistent fer sure. I'll post about my haphazard approach in the next day or so and these posts will make a good pair! Actually being within marine influences and in a mostly already-full-of-natives environment, it's really quite a bit different for me. Also we have no water meters here!
Christine said…
Wow, what vigilance! Irrigation can be the easiest to install and trickiest to get to work right! Drip especially requires regular maintenance, but there's nothing much you can do about the folks that design those darn controllers!
Michelle said…
Oh boy, do I consider drip irrigation and their timers necessary evils! You're not alone in experiencing timers with minds of their own. I think I've finally got my timers operating on MY schedule. Now I have to find all the lines that have been clogged up by my hard well water...

I really admire your dedication to saving water - it is not easy.
susan_morrison said…
I tell clients the two things most likely to go wrong on new installations are drainage and irrigation. I am impressed you are so on top of it - how frustrating that it's been so challenging to adjust.

I had the same issue last year - I asked my contractor to do an irrigation audit while he was doing some other work for me, and low and behold he found an underground leak (no wonder my Japanese Maple was so happy last year). But I'm working on another project this year, did another audit, and found a new leak, so you can never take it for granted that things are fine.

I installed an ET (smart) controller last year, and I love it. I program in the details of each zone (sun/shade/slope/low, med or high water/soil type/root depth) and the controller adjusts itself every day based on weather station data where I live. My water agency rebated most of the price of the controller to me & my water bill is down about 30%.
Water bills are on all our minds--I was assembling a post on this very topic for tomorrow! I think I have my irrigation system finally figured out, but it's only two little circuits, plus me with a hose or bucket. Watering is easy to keep track of that way.

Like you I find the every other month reports on water use to be staggered so far apart. I've been tempted to open up the water meter myself and see how things are going.
WiseAcre said…
Setting some of those controllers are impossible when they develop a mind of their own.

Glad you got it under control. I was going to suggest running the zones manually only when you decided watering was required. You can walk the area and check for leaks then too (always a good idea to do so regularly).
Chari + Matt said…
When we bought our house I was coming from a long line of east coast residences (wells, so no bills) and apartments (renters' blissful ignorance). Our first bill showed us using over 300 gallons per day, which I could not visulalize. Literally. I was trying to see using 300 gallon jugs of water. A DAY.

Two years later, we've found some irrigation leaks on our own, adjusted shower schedules, added a baby and associated laundry, and fixed a leaky toilet seal, and we were down around 110 gallons per day in the spring cycle. Of course, the weeping birch-like tree we inherited is not happy with me, but we'll see what the summer cycle brings.

When I still can't picture 110 a day, I remind myself that laundry load is 40 or so gallons a whack. Holy smokes.
Anonymous said…
Mr. Mouse here. The moral of this story is: "Let no good deed go unpunished." :-)
Barbara E said…
A cautionary tale if ever there was one. Thanks for sharing it. I use many different watering systems - hose, sprinkler, underground with controller, drip, low-volume... Each for different areas. My water bill for 2 months, Jan-Feb was 14 units, March-Apr: 24 units, and last summer was 60 units (darn that lawn!). Can't find May-June though it is probably low due to wet spring. I really do need to work on the summer months and the grass.
Brad B said…
Irrigation always causes headaches in my professional experience.

We pulled out part of our lawn and planted mixed natives and drought-tolerant last November and the rest of the yard this march. I've only been watering by hand. There is no hose spigot in front so I've had to cart barrels of water out front to water. So as you can imagine I don't do this very often.

I was very conscientious right after planting, but not so much later. The area that was planted last november I've maybe watered 3 times this year. And the other side more, but not really more than once a month recently except for a few plants and they are all doing great. I think you live in a hotter microclimate than I do, so you'll probably need to water more, but once some of those guys are established they really don't need much water.

The manzanitas i planted in November I think I just watered for the first time since March, not because they looked bad, but because I felt guilty.