Water-Conserving Landscapes Don't Have to Be Limited to Desert-Tolerant Vegetation

A landscape contest among California utilities encourages residents to replace lawns with water-saving plants and flowers

Water-Conserving Landscapes Don't Have to Be Limited to Desert-Tolerant Vegetation

Water-saving landscape education traditionally was limited to xeriscaping designs with mostly cactus and rocks. The WaterSmart contest promotes alternative water-conserving landscapes that are inviting and colorful.

Most of the water use in Southern California goes to urban landscapes. That’s why the Vista (California) Irrigation District and other San Diego region water agencies sought ways to promote water efficiency through California-friendly landscape design.

In the process, Vista district staff discovered that four other San Diego County water agencies had created a contest to promote the beauty of lower-water-use landscapes. Word about the success of that quickly spread to a dozen other water agencies that had the same objective.

The WaterSmart landscape contest, now in its 15th year, promotes the beauty of water-saving landscapes and rewards homeowners who chose to install them.

More than cacti

The idea for the contest took root in 2004, when utility leaders discovered there were few good examples of attractive, water-saving landscapes for the public to emulate. Before the contest began, water-saving landscape education was limited to xeriscaping designs, which included mostly cactus and rocks. 

“The WaterSmart contest helped to promote alternative landscape designs that were inviting, colorful and beautiful and offered residents another option besides xeriscaping,” says Brent Reyes, water conservation specialist for the district. “The majority of our customers were not interested in this desert-style look for their yards.”

With a population of about 133,000, the Vista Irrigation District serves 28,600 accounts. It promotes the contest annually through its website, a newsletter, door hangers and direct mail, along with flyers at nurseries.

Rules of engagement

The contest starts every year on Jan. 1, and the entry deadline is April 26. Entrants must be residential customers of one of the 13 participating San Diego County water agencies and must submit an entry form and pictures of their landscapes, preferably before and after shots. Residents who replace lawns with WaterSmart landscaping are eligible to receive a rebate of $2 per square foot up to 5,000 square feet for the area they transform. The rebates are provided by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

Entries are judged on overall attractiveness, plant selection, design, appropriate maintenance and efficient methods of irrigation. Plants must be well maintained and weeds kept to a minimum. Landscapes must be able to thrive with less water, have adequate plant coverage using permeable soils and take advantage of features like shade, microclimates and low-lying flood areas.

Designs range from simple to elaborate, but all are judged by the same criteria. Some residents hire contractors to create their landscapes, and others do the work themselves with help from neighbors and friends.

Some agencies have board members who judge the entries and some use agency staff. The first-place winner receives a $250 gift certificate to a home-supply or gardening store. All winners’ photos are displayed at various locations for the public to view. The winning entries also are promoted through news releases, agency newsletters, websites and social media.

Happy trails

Many entrants have removed grass lawns and replaced them with WaterSmart plants and flowers, adding beauty, variety and color to their neighborhoods. One entrant made paths throughout the new landscape by pouring colored concrete and forming it into pavers in different shapes and sizes. Each paver was handcrafted before being placed in the ground.

Residents who have replaced their lawns with WaterSmart landscapes have seen, in most cases, an estimated 20% to 40% reduction in water usage and therefore lower water bills. Last year, more than 100 entries were received by the 13 water agencies taking part in the contest.

Some residents have shared in the spoils of their winning neighbors: When the perennial water-saving plants become overgrown, entrants share them with people next door to help them transform their own yards.

“The contest has been a wonderful way to connect with our customers,” Reyes says. “It has also enabled participants to connect with their neighbors. Many of the winners have had people in their neighborhood follow along with their landscape installations. Some have even changed out their own landscaping after seeing how well the contest winners’ landscapes turned out.”


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