This Utility Proves That Less Water Does Not Mean a Less Beautiful Landscape

A xeriscaping demonstration garden in Colorado Springs shows residents how to create appealing landscapes with less need for irrigation.

This Utility Proves That Less Water Does Not Mean a Less Beautiful Landscape

A portion of the Water Wise Demonstration Garden and an informational kiosk along the pathway.

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Two acres of land next to the 42 mgd Tollefson Water Treatment Plant in Colorado Springs are the showpiece of water conservation.

The Water Wise Demonstration Garden, created by Colorado Springs Utilities, presents a water-saving landscape that is an attraction for thousands of residents and tourists. Divided into 10 segmented areas arranged according to their watering needs, the garden boasts more than 45 species of trees, shrubs, plants, flowers and native grasses. Each unique area is designed to demonstrate the seven principles of xeriscape gardening.

“It provides real-life examples of how you can get all the beauty and benefits of xeriscape gardening, but still use water more wisely,” says Catherine Moravec, senior water conservation specialist for the utility.

Visitor friendly

Concrete walkways and a few gravel paths meander throughout the site. Benches and seating areas allow visitors to stop and read informational kiosks or view interpretive signs. Many trees, shrubs, plants and grasses are identified with 2- by 4-inch metal labels mounted on stands. A display explains the xeriscaping principles: planning and design, soil amendment, plant selection, suitable turf, mulching, efficient irrigation and proper maintenance.

The garden was planned and originally planted in 1991. Since then, it has expanded to include experimental concepts. “As we get new ideas and a better understanding of how to make all this work, we develop a new area around the garden,” Moravec says. “The garden area is surrounded on two sides by the water treatment plant, so about every 10 years we ask the water plant to consider moving the fence back a little so we can expand the garden.”

The most recent expansion was in 2015, when the utility’s Water Conservation Group developed the Water Wise Neighborhood. Consisting of five small-scale front yards, the area is specific to the needs and concerns of city residents. Homeowners can pick up a handout that provides a design guide and plant list for each area. Visitors get a good idea of the different styles they can use and which plants will thrive with different amounts of water.

Taking care

Garden maintenance is the job of the Water Conservation Group and a large corps of volunteers. “We have limited interaction with the treatment plant because they’re responsible for cleaning and providing the water, and we’re responsible for helping customers use it wisely,” Moravec says.

The area’s semiarid climate accentuates the need to build a conservation ethic, says Moravec. Between 35% to 45% of the water the utility delivers is for landscape irrigation. “How do we meet the water needs of our growing community and prepare for their future needs?” Moravec asks.

“We are always looking for efficiencies, whether in low-flow toilets, better heating and cooling systems. In the case of landscapes, we want to set an example of how people can use xeriscape gardening techniques and still have a beautiful landscape with healthy vegetation, while watering once a week rather than three times.”

The utility’s conservation efforts are supported by a state sponsored Water Wise initiative that addresses water challenges by improving water-use efficiency through diverse community connections and innovative solutions. Many web-based resources detail specific practices that form a foundation for efficiency.

Education first

Education is the primary goal. “We have rebate programs and incentives, but education is what’s really the most important to us,” says Moravec. “We feel that education has been the reason we have seen a reduction in overwatering, down to about 15%.

“When we talk to the energy demand management staff, their primary approach is that if they can get people to change out the hardware to increase efficiency, then they’ve done their job.  On the water side, it’s significantly different because water use is governed a lot by behavior. We invest in education, because that’s the foundation of helping people use water wisely.”

In normal (non-COVID-19) times, the utility offers joint tours of the Tollefson Water Treatment plant and Water Wise garden; it makes a great field trip for school groups because they learn about where their water comes from and what they can do to use it wisely.

During the pandemic, other educational efforts continue. Instead of the 14 in-person Water Wise landscape classes held last year, 11 webinars were substituted this year. “We had more than 800 registrants to the webinars, and so far have tracked nearly 1,600 additional views of the webinar recordings,” says Moravec. “We have reached more people this year and hope to continue improving our approach in 2021 as we learn more about using technology.

“The thing that I talk about with our water operations department is that we go through a whole lot of effort to get water rights, transport water to our community, clean it to drinking water standards, and distribute it to people’s houses. If we can support our community to understand water’s value and to use it wisely, then the whole system is working together.”   


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