Updates to Alachua County’s Irrigation Code are designed to shift our landscaping paradigm to lower water use

Press release from Alachua County

ALACHUA COUNTY, Fla. – In this editorial from Alachua County’s Water Resources Manager Stacie Greco, she lays out how landscaping practices affect water quality and future water supplies.

We have a great opportunity with the recent changes to Alachua County’s Irrigation Design Code to really improve our landscapes and community resilience. It will require some creativity, innovation, and a broader perspective on how we view our yards. It won’t be easy for the irrigation and building industry, but this is something we really need to do.

Last year alone, over 800 landscape irrigation systems were installed in Alachua County, covering about 700 acres of land. Some of that land used to be forests, providing important habitats for wildlife and helping recharge our aquifer—the source of our water and the heart of our springs. As our region continues to grow, with the coast facing sea-level rise and climate change challenges, our yards have become more than just spaces for our kids and pets. They also play a crucial role in providing shade, cooling, and habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

We’ve done this before. In the late 1990s, permanent in-ground irrigation became the norm, and that’s when residential water use shot up from an average of 125 to 400 gallons per day. To address this, the Code now limits permanent irrigation to 50% of the permeable area of a lot, with a maximum irrigated footprint of 0.25 acres per residential lot. This means we’ll need temporary irrigation to establish new landscapes, which can be as simple as using hoses and sprinklers during dry spells. And guess what? We’ve looked at the data, and homes using these temporary methods still consume relatively low amounts of water. So, there’s a niche here for someone to develop a system for establishing new landscapes in new construction.

The University of Florida is also doing some promising research in this area. They’ve found that Bahia grass does well without permanent irrigation, and there might be new varieties on the horizon that address aesthetic concerns about seed heads. Two types of Bermuda grass, Bimini and TifTuf, thrive on rainfall alone. Studies have shown that improving soil health with organic matter like compost can help new landscapes establish with limited irrigation, especially in areas with poor soils.

We’re already seeing changes happening. Mixed-species yards are becoming more popular, where people intentionally plant various pollinator plants and legumes to improve soil nutrients. Another approach is to limit irrigation, fertilizer, and herbicide use and see what naturally evolves. We have plenty of native and Florida Friendly Landscaping (FFL) plants that can thrive without permanent irrigation. It’s time to embrace the core principle of the FFL program: choosing the right plant for the right place. If a plant needs constant irrigation and chemicals to survive, it’s not the right fit—let’s try again! The Alachua County IFAS Extension and Master Gardeners are fantastic resources to help navigate these changes.

There is a bonus; it pays to do this. Installing and maintaining irrigation systems is costly for builders and property owners. Permanent systems add thousands of dollars to home costs and require regular upkeep to meet Code regulations and prevent water waste. Backflow inspections are also necessary to protect our water supply. Many times people are paying for excessive and unneeded amounts of water if they just set it and forget it. Irrigated turf is popular because it’s the cheapest and quickest option for builders. But a survey conducted by Alachua County found that 68% of recent home buyers were willing to pay more for landscapes that use less water.

So, how do we get started? To learn more about Alachua County’s Irrigation Design Code and programs to safeguard our water resources, visit www.AlachuaCountyWater.org.

  • Thank you. The only time lawn irrigation should be used is right after grass plugs or turf are installed. To help them get established so seasonal rains can take over. If the right grass species is used.
    Then we have to get residents or lawn care services to pick the weeds. It’s a good reason to get outdoors, vitamin D and fresh air.

  • Convince the HOAs about the benefits of deviating from the typical St. Augustine requirement.

  • “Press release from Alachua County.” Reader beware, it’s from the cuckoo ACBOCC.

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