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County commission discusses options to reduce residential irrigation use

Commissioner Mary Alford asks whether the board can incentivize the removal of irrigation systems “like a gun buyback”

BY JENNIFER CABRERA

At the April 26 Alachua County Commission meeting, Stacie Greco, Water Conservation Coordinator for the Alachua County Environmental Protection Department, gave a presentation about water conservation. 

Greco pointed to irrigation as a large percentage of residential water use and said that most new homes now have irrigation pre-installed. She said that one of the County’s key strategies is to try to limit permanent irrigation before it’s installed, “because once it’s installed, what we’re learning from our boots-on-the-ground being out there every day, is it will be used, it requires homeowner education… and maintenance… And it can contribute to fertilizer pollution.” She said their goal is to “transition the landscape paradigm to landscapes that are not as resource-intensive.”

The County has a Turf Swap program that provides rebates to people who want to replace turf with Florida-friendly landscaping. They also have resources available to homeowners in cases where homeowners’ associations do not allow Florida-friendly landscapes. The County’s landscape irrigation design code, which was adopted for unincorporated areas in 2016 and extended to all the municipalities in 2019, requires installers of all new residential landscape irrigation to submit plans and fees and then be inspected.

Greco said that the University of Florida has done a preliminary analysis, comparing homes that were subject to the design code to those that weren’t, “and the results are not showing significant water savings, and while we’re disappointed, we’re not totally surprised.” Greco said they were hoping the code would persuade homeowners to not install irrigation, but “we’re learning people don’t even have that choice. It just comes with houses.”

Greco proposed some ideas for new County policies, including prohibiting high-volume irrigation in new commercial properties, enforcing the end of the two months of additional watering that is permitted for new turf, and having staff do inspections instead of allowing self-inspection. She said they don’t have the authority to totally prohibit irrigation (water management districts have that authority), but “perhaps there’s a way that we prohibit high-volume irrigation.” 

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She said the County is also considering requiring soil amendments (enrichment) to reduce the need for irrigation and fertilizer (later in the meeting she said that would be a “significant cost” for builders and homebuyers), and “we have been wanting to pursue once-a-week year-round restrictions… So we would like the water management district to give us” that authority. Greco said that has happened in South Florida and Southwest Florida, “and I think the timing is right.”

The staff recommendation was for the board to ask staff to come back with revisions to the irrigation design code “so we can look at it with a fine-tooth comb,” to explore requirements for soil amendments in new construction, and to explore possible prohibitions on permanent high-volume irrigation. They also requested a chair letter asking the water management districts and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to allow the County to prohibit irrigation wells and adopt stricter irrigation restrictions. 

Commissioner Mary Alford said she supported all the recommendations and asked if they “could go to less than half an acre.” Greco said that when they do the deep dive into the irrigation design code, they will look at “every single design standard and see if there are ways to get more savings.” Alford also wanted to know if there is a way to incentivize rain water collection and storage: “as the price of water goes up, I expect that people will be more interested in it.” She also asked whether the County can require irrigation systems to always be set to the required watering schedule, even when new turf is installed, and then use above-ground sprinklers for the extra watering needed to establish new landscaping. Greco responded that some research shows that a two-month establishment period for new landscaping “might be too much,” so they could look into reducing that period. Greco also said they could look into whether they could disallow irrigation before 6:00 or 7:00 p.m. instead of before 4:00 p.m.

Commissioner Anna Prizzia said she wants Gainesville Regional Utilities to “look at like really getting aggressive with our tiered water rates” to raise the costs for people using a lot of irrigation water. She said she knew that people will install irrigation wells if that happens, so she supported requesting the ability to prohibit irrigation wells and also the ability to require meters on all irrigation wells. 

Greco pointed out that if irrigation meters were required, the County would need a program to enable them to access private property and collect the data from the meters.

Prizzia made a motion to approve all the staff recommendations “with a focus on digging into the landscape code and our irrigation code to make adjustments in order to save water” and authorize a chair letter asking the water management districts to prohibit irrigation wells and allow the County to adopt stricter irrigation restrictions. She added a request to the City of Gainesville to bring a presentation about water rates and the possibility of tiered water rates for homes that are using large amounts of irrigation. She also wanted to move forward with composting requirements, but Greco wanted to be cautious about whether that leads to water savings and also getting buy-in from stakeholders. 

Commissioner Ken Cornell was hesitant about requiring soil amendments because it “would raise the cost a lot,” but he was in favor of more restrictions on watering. He suggested leaning on recommendations from IFAS for soil amendments, “so if IFAS is recommending this, builders… that’s completely different from ‘the County’s now requiring it’… that helps us a lot… It will give our recommendations more weight with the builders and the homeowners.”

He continued, “I’m in favor of once-a-week [watering]… I’m very much in favor of what Commissioner Prizzia said on the higher tier, when you get above a certain level, you’re going to pay for that, a lot. I think that makes sense.” He said that high bills might persuade people to turn off their irrigation system or pull it out: “It rains every single day in Florida during the summer.” He favored putting more money in the budget for public relations campaigns about watering less. 

Chair Marihelen Wheeler said, “We’d just like to say [irrigation systems] are not allowed, period.”

“… and guess what, it’s gonna rain again today. You don’t have to have the irrigation on. It’s gonna rain again tomorrow, yep. And they say it’s not gonna rain, but it’s gonna rain again because it rains every single day. I mean, that’s what happens in Florida.” – Commissioner Ken Cornell

Cornell said he’d rather have the “carrot” of saving money than having a lot of “enforcement police… and guess what, it’s gonna rain again today. You don’t have to have the irrigation on. It’s gonna rain again tomorrow, yep. And they say it’s not gonna rain, but it’s gonna rain again because it rains every single day. I mean, that’s what happens in Florida… 55 to 60 inches a year.”

Prizzia added to the motion a request to the IFAS Center for Land Use Efficiency to bring forward recommendations as staff goes through the codes. Regarding increased rates for high water usage, she added, “They will put in irrigation wells, which is why we need to get that irrigation well requirement, where if you are hooked up to potable water, you cannot drill an irrigation well, but we need the water management districts on board for that… We need both pieces.”

Cornell said, “We just need to require that they watch the Weather Channel because it literally will rain. It will rain tomorrow. They don’t need to pay for that. It will rain. I promise, it’s gonna rain.”

Greco said that when she goes to conferences around the state, “People are so jealous because we’re really leading the way and doing a lot in this county.”

“[I’m] past the point of asking people to do things. I think we need to start requiring people to do things… At this point, we have hit a crucial point where we need to require more, and I’ll be glad to take it on the chin for that one, for sure.” – Chair Marihelen Wheeler

Wheeler said she’s “past the point of asking people to do things. I think we need to start requiring people to do things… At this point, we have hit a crucial point where we need to require more, and I’ll be glad to take it on the chin for that one, for sure.”

Alford said that if they go to higher-tiered rates, they need a program to help people identify and fix leaks and “work with the [Community Weatherization Coalition]… to help people address those problems before we go to too high of a rate” because GRU often refuses to reduce a bill when there is a leak (she said they will sometimes reduce the wastewater portion). She added, “Can we incentivize the removal of irrigation systems, like a gun buyback?”

Greco said that’s essentially what the Turf Swap program is.

Alford also asked whether they could limit the number of fixtures in showers: “I’ve been in housing where it’s literally like a car wash in the shower, and they’ve had to make a drain this big to take all of the water out, and that’s just ridiculous.”

The motion passed unanimously.

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