Ear to the Ground

The Lawn Whisperer helps residents and businesses in and around Dallas-Fort Worth learn and adopt water-conserving behaviors.
Ear to the Ground
The Lawn Whisperer program has helped bring substantial visibility to Dallas Water Utilities’ efforts to conserve water.

Ever since Dallas Water Utilities targeted water conservation awareness in 2001, the pattern has been to run a campaign for two years, then move on to a new concept.

In November, however, DWU and the Tarrant Regional Water District (TRWD) decided to extend their Lawn Whisperer campaign into a third year. “We usually like to keep the campaigns fresh,” says Carole Davis, water conservation division manager. “But this has been a very effective campaign, so we want to get the most out of it that we can.”

The bearded Lawn Whisperer, with the swagger of Indiana Jones and the common sense of Norm Abrams, has developed a strong following in the fourth-largest metropolitan area in the United States. The character is central to the second joint campaign for the neighboring agencies since TRWD officials approached Davis in 2007 to discuss working together: “They said, ‘Hey, why don’t we team up and get more bang for our buck?’ ”

Lots of exposure

The region is served by a single television and radio market. Linda Christie, government relations director, says, “We get double our money in leverage.” Dean Minchillo, TRWD water conservation manager, says the joint effort has other benefits: “We also wanted to have one voice and the same message.”

The message is getting through. “Each year since 2002, we have done a post-campaign telephone survey, and this year we added an Internet survey,” says Davis. “This year, 78 percent said the Lawn Whisperer campaign was a major reason why they changed their water use.”

The most visible aspect of the campaign is a series of television commercials aired from spring through mid-September. The campaign, designed by the Fort Worth-based Eppstein Group and Dallas-based The Wolf Group, also uses billboards, bus stop bench ads, print ads and public appearances by the Lawn Whisperer, portrayed by actor Christian Kelley.

The traditional advertising grabs public attention, offers short bits of advice and steers people to a Facebook page where the Lawn Whisperer can convey more detailed information about saving water outdoors.

Teaching good habits

Mark Olson, TRWD conservation and creative manager, is one of the experts behind the Lawn Whisperer. Based on research, Olson advises homeowners that their lawns need no more than two waterings per week, even in drought-stricken North Texas. Olson also tracks the weather and tells Lawn Whisperer followers when enough rain has fallen so that they can cancel waterings or consider delaying watering if rain is expected.

Short videos teach water consumers about effective ways to reduce consumption, blending humor with education as the “hero” converses with lush lawns, flowers and shrubs about their needs. The Lawn Whisperer has become a local celebrity, appearing at events that range from throwing out the first pitch (and watering the outfield) at a Texas Rangers game to visiting the crowds at community festivals of all sizes.

The campaign’s effectiveness can be measured in gallons. “We started getting serious about water conservation in 2007, and we’ve saved about 45 billion gallons over five years compared to what our models projected consumption would be,” Christie says. That is enough water to serve four cities in the TRWD system: Hurst, Euless, Bedford and Azle.

Long-term savings

TRWD’s conservation programs cost 16 cents per 1,000 gallons saved, while the next infrastructure project in the long-term plans will cost $1.36 per 1,000 gallons in new capacity. Planners had projected the next reservoir would be needed by 2030, but thanks to conservation, that timeline has been extended by five or more years.

Davis adds, “The 2012 State Water Plan estimates that over the next 50 years, 25 percent of our water resources will come from conservation and reuse. It’s not going to be the only answer down the road, but it will be important.”

Although the Lawn Whisperer offers plenty of practical information on water conservation, his lessons are not the only education DWU and TRWD offer. The DWU Water-Wise program offers events such as seminars and tours of water-conserving landscaping projects. Dallas also runs the Environmental Education Initiative with the Dallas and Richardson school districts for first through fifth grade classes.

DWU offers free irrigation inspections for residential and commercial customers and funds minor repairs and some fixture retrofitting for low-income and senior citizen customers. Its “New Throne for Your Home” program provides two free high-efficiency toilets for customers with older fixtures, or $98 rebates for people who want to select their own toilets. Similar programs are available for commercial, hospitality and institutional customers.

Free advice

TRWD works with communities to sponsor the “W.I.S.E. Guys” program offered through a private contractor. The Water Irrigation System Evaluation program sends licensed irrigators to assess homeowners’ systems, give advice, and point out needed repairs.

TRWD financially backs water conservation programs for schools and offers symposiums and other events for adults. The symposiums have grown into regional events attended by customers of DWU, TRWD and the North Texas Municipal Water District north of Dallas.

DWU serves more than 1.2 million residents in Dallas and 1.2 million more in cities to which it provides wholesale water. TRWD serves 1.8 million people in wholesaling water to more than 30 cities and suburbs in the Fort Worth/Arlington area and dozens more around its reservoirs.


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