Water Conservation: Think "Outside the Box"
Virginia R. Rockwell, VSLD

Here are steps to conserve water – now and always:

1. Think “outside the box” of local government lines: recognize that this is a long-term, systematic, ecological crisis spanning more than counties, municipalities, watersheds, regions or states.

Recognize that forests make most of our rain, not oceans. Contributing to the long—term drought is deforestation, particularly along ridges, due to pollution, development, and logging. The tops of ridges, and the tops of watersheds, are the primary places to preserve, conserve, and keep pristine. If they lie “outside the box” of county lines, it doesn’t matter. The Rapidan River only served us as long as it did this summer because of somewhat more rainfall along the Blue Ridge. Study what the Victorians did over a hundred years ago in Melbourne, Australia to create reservoirs and aqueducts in mountain ranges over a hundred miles away from the city.

Limit the amount of pavement. Water that can’t go back in the ground here just runs off with pollutants in it and winds up in the ocean.

Hire, by voting, politicians who are capable of thinking and acting “outside the box”. Retire, by voting, those who are insular and short-term in their thinking, incapable of creating a sustainable, sane water policy and system.

2. Plant trees. Water them instead of something more frivolous. Plant trees for shade, for their ability to create topsoil and rainfall, Plant everywhere, but particularly along ridges.

3. Use roof rain water as much as possible instead of ‘mining’ water. Roof rain water barrels positioned under downspouts with properly fitted screens can keep an entire landscape watered. Gravity feeding water slowly from these barrels is the best to establish trees and shrubs and limit runoff.

4. Slow water going down slopes via swales and berms cut on contour, planted to absorb and recharge water. Grading and drainage practices intent on running all water away down hills to someplace ‘else’ are a waste. Hire qualified landscape designers, architects, engineers and excavators capable of thinking 'outside the box’ to design and implement.

5. Limit household water use with available technology: Front-loading, low water use clothes washers, low flow toilets and showerheads. Encourage grey water recycling in local building codes.

6. Grow topsoil. In order to have plants survive, we need more than 1 percent organic matter in the soil to allow water in and nutrient to reach plants. Compost to 135 degrees temperature your lawn clippings, leaves and food scraps, and muck out the stables.

Mulch with newspaper and plain cardboard and cover it with ornamental bark mulch. Soil test to see what else (like lime or gypsum) might help.

7. Create a more sustainable home landscape. Plant shelterbelts, windbreaks and frame your fabulous (and fabulously HOT) sunset view of the Blue Ridge with some shade trees (In some areas, west-facing windows are prohibited by code as too energy-inefficient.) Use native plants and drought tolerant plants liberally. Plant now for spring. Plants established over autumn, winter and early spring do a better job of surviving extreme swings in temperature and precipitation in later spring and summer.

Move your garden spot for veggies, herb and cutting garden closer to the house so you can water with roof rain water---and stop feeding the deer. Contain your enthusiasm when it comes to flowering annuals and put them in pots, preferably big, glazed ones, preferably close to the house, and NOT on a west facing brick wall. A lot of little pots dry out faster than a few big ones and crowd roots.

Lawns go dormant in drought. Don’t sweat the small stuff, and turfgrass is definitely small stuff. Add nitrogen-fixing Dutch white clover into your lawn seed mix and cut fertilizer. Plant bulbs for naturalizing. They always seem to eke out enough water over the winter to reward you.

Challenged? Hire a qualified landscape designer to assist you. After all, good landscape design is the only home improvement that appreciates over time.

First published in Orange County Review, September 2001

The author, a certified Landscape Designer, is the owner of The Gentle Gardener in Gordonsville, Orange County, Virginia. She is a certified Permaculture Designer, specializing in sustainable landscape design.

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