Preparing You Drought Management Plan

In the past decade, we’ve seen and heard a lot of new “Buzzwords” in the landscape industry.  Words such as LEED, sustainability, low-impact, urban sprawl, being Green, and many more have become commonplace.

Another “buzzword” which has been around for a while, but has never really discussed much in Hawaii is “Drought Management Plan”.

Ancient Hawaiian’s had drought management plans, which date back hundreds of years. These laws that governed water usage were known as the Kanawai or “laws of water” and were enforced by a strict Kapu.  Damaging an irrigation system or harming a water source was punishable by death in cases.  Water conservation was the preeminent law of the land and was very successful in supporting Hawaii’s population.

Officially, The State of Hawaii implemented the development of their initial modern day “Hawaii Drought Plan” in 2000 and this was updated in 2005, but has really never been implemented on a statewide level.    Prior to then, drought was addressed as a temporary emergency and actions that were taken in response to these emergencies.

The first recorded drought took place in the 1890’s, due to a complete lack of long-range planning, which continued into the 1920 when the Honolulu Water Commission (now BWS) took over the management of water in the Nuuanu area of Honolulu.  Ironically, almost 100 years ago, they faced some of the same issues that we face today.  Antiquated systems, haphazard usage and perhaps most important of all, a lack of planning, not so much on a Kingdom, State or Municipal level, but by the individual user.

Historically, the key item with all Drought Management Plans is to develop and implement these ideas before the drought occurs.  Key elements include;

  • A comprehensive rainfall pattern and climate monitoring system
  • A network of people and organizations who can effectively assess evolving shortages
  • Clear plans on how to immediately address both short and long term droughts before they occur.

The landscape industry cannot do much in predicting or changing rainfall but we can monitor it and we do have access to historical climatic conditions which we should take advantage of.  We also are a network of people who have not only the capability but also their duty to assess future shortages and implement contingency plans before the shortages occur.

Basically, this means we need to prioritize the usage of water before and during drought periods.  The State of Hawaii Administrative Rules of the State Water Code HRS 174C-62, indicates the highest priority of water usage should be Domestic usage, followed by municipal, military, Ag, Industrial and lastly Golf, Recreational and Landscape applications.

While restrictions vary by County, the Honolulu Board of Water supply has three warning levels, Caution, Alert and Critical.

  • Under a Caution Level, users will be requested to voluntary conserve water especially the reduction of irrigation usage.
  • Under an Alert Level mandatory water use restrictions may be placed upon customers, with the possibility of fines, surcharges or disconnection to the water service.
  • Under Critical Levels mandatory water use restrictions will be implemented and an aggressive water conservation program will be essential.

As a user or landscaper, how can you prepare a Drought Management Plan for your property?  The first step is to prioritize your site both from a maintenance level as well as from the user’s respective; Examples may be;

Obviously, the priority that you would want to reduce first would be your lowest priority areas.  If you’re asked to voluntary conserve water, you may want to reduce your water usage by 25%.  Depending upon the type of landscape you’re maintaining, you’re going to first look at the back of house, side yards or roughs to meet this requirement.  If the warning increases to an Alert level with mandatory 50% cut back you’re going to look at reducing your usage at those areas plus some of the higher priority levels but minimizing the cut back in your highest priorities until absolutely needed.

While water reductions may be required there are other things you as the landscape manager need to consider:

  • Most Important:  Know your water needs for your site and the application rate of your system and apply the water properly.  Do this now before any drought.
  • Prepare a drought plan and implement it early, before it’s mandatory.
  • If this is a public area, post the drought notices so your clients know why you’re doing what you’re doing.  It’s better to warn the users before it gets to the “Shock and Awe stage, and it will help you keep your job.
  • Use your as-built irrigation plans to highlight the areas selected for reduction.
  • If looking long range, consider planting a more drought tolerant turf/plantings.
  • Aerate your turf areas to improve the efficiency that the water being applied
  • Adjust your watering times often.  Daily is best, but monthly as a minimum for commercial sites.
  • Apply wetting agents to also improve the efficiency of the water being applied
  • Budget for more hand watering of “Hot spots” Don’t irrigate the entire area when only a 20’ x 20’ area is dry.
  • Maintain your equipment to top shape.  A sharp blade causes less damage to the turf than a dull blade and the turf will not require as much water to recover.
  • Consider a less frequent mowing and fertilization schedule.
  • New sprinklers are far more efficient than older versions.  Consider up-grading your system either on a circuit-by-circuit basis or everything.  Do not however replace only one sprinkler at a time, do all of them on the same zone at the same time.
  • Up-grade your control system.  Many new control systems can save 30% to 50% of the water applied through better management.
  • As for help from a qualified consultant.

Best Advice – Be Prepared.  It’s now if, but when the next drought will happen.

Mr. Schildknecht has worked in the field of landscape and golf irrigation design and consultation for more than 42 years and is president of Irrigation Hawaii, Ltd.




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About the author  ⁄ Cheryl Dacus

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