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Technology and collaboration can boost water conservation

By Roger Yohem, Inside Tucson Business

Roger Yohem

The Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the UA was the vision and creation of Richard Underwood. He donated the building of the lab that includes chiller and rainwater harvesting that feeds a natural pond. Designed to showcase native trees and plants, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has designated the area as a “safe haven” for native fish species. The lab also includes a memorial to his son. Roger Yohem photo

When Richard Underwood gets involved he does it with energy and passion. As a co-owner of AAA Landscaping with his brother, his competitive, energetic work ethic has grown the company into an elite player in his industry throughout the Southwest and California. 

His clients embrace his passion for technology, precision and efficiency.

His passion for education is rock solid. As a memorial to his son, he was the genesis behind the creation, funding and building of the Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

He advocates for the building and development industry, and business commerce overall. He is a life director of the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association.

On the flip side, he has a passionate dislike of waste and inefficiency in business. And when it comes to public policy, he really detests it when stakeholders are excluded from the decision-making process.

“I’m very passionate about water conservation issues and frankly, local governments need to be more open minded,” he said. “The best thing we can do as builders and developers is to partner with them, to encourage them to use us as experts. We have politicians who realize we want the same thing they do. To their credit, they respond to our concerns but unfortunately, after we approach them. We need to be a resource for them when they plan policies and write ordinances. When they ask for input, we need to step up. At the same time, they must understand that property owners want a reasonable payback for any additional costs put on them through regulation.”

He calls it “a positive co-dependency.”

Much of Underwood’s conservation ethic, such as water harvesting and commercial landscape irrigation, is sprinkled with tactics such as collaboration, coordination, integration and utilization. The most effective way to manage water in the desert is through a broad, integrated approach.

“We really haven’t talked seriously with policymakers about the water savings you can engender by water audits, good design, balanced installations, smart controls and smart clocks.  There’s been no consideration or credit for that,” he said.   

For example, existing and pending water harvesting and irrigation policies still need to be refined. From his professional experience, and on behalf of his business clients, it is neither cost effective nor feasible to always capture all run-off water on-site.    

Installing huge catch basin areas or underground tanks in shopping center parking lots “is already old school technology,” he said.  Trapping surface water can cause unintended public health consequences by capturing debris from rooftops, leaky oil and radiator fluid, and “who knows what people dump onto the pavement.”  After the water sits around two days, it’s full of micro-organisms.  That’s “nasty, creating a breeding pond for West Nile virus.”           

“If government is going to make these kind of pie-in-the-sky regulations, they’ve got to have professionals working with them who have cutting-edge ideas and real world experience. Again, get some heavyweight architects, irrigation manufacturers and landscape engineers involved up front,” Underwood said.  

Through partnering, private business can share “best management” practices.  For example, water audits can save clients water and money.  Mark Lucie, area manager for AAA Landscaping, cited cases where water audits identified the need to change out water meters, at a savings of $125 a month per meter.  

Another best practice links solar technology into running irrigation controls.  Right off the top, solar easily can avoid some $2,000 in trenching costs and another $2,000 to place a meter. 

Plus, “we don’t have to rip up the desert,” added Construction Vice President Mike Walter.

For example, developer Bob Sharpe’s Rancho Sahuarita project incorporates solar to power about 95 percent of the development’s irrigation controls and monument lighting.   

Rancho Sahuarita, a AAA Landscaping client, also uses satellite technology as a landscape irrigation management tool.  Smart clocks are pre-programmed with data such as turf slope, soil conditions, and plant type and density.  Real-time weather data is fed into the system digitally. 

“Then, irrigation run times adjust accordingly,” said Daniel Norman, regional manager for AAA Landscaping. 

Rancho Sahuarita is so massive and comprehensive in its approach to energy and water conservation that Lucie and a crew of 20 are assigned there full-time. 

When the talk turns to golf courses, water really stirs up the passion for conservation.  Using integrated smart technology, golf courses are probably the most efficient users of water in the business world. 

They have massive amounts of grass and use cutting-edge, cost-effective practices that include disease-resistant turf, environmentally friendly chemicals and limits on water use. 

“Unfortunately, the public and politicians overlook the facts,” Lucie said. “They eyeball golf courses as water wasters. They have not educated themselves on smart water technology.” 

As new technology becomes available, water conservation will be a fluid work in progress. For the long-term benefit of our entire region, the AAA Landscaping brain trust believes that policymakers must collaborate more with the private sector.

“We can take better care of our natural resources if the municipalities would be more willing to partner with the experts, like us, in making public policy,” said Walter.

“Mandates defeat the purpose because businesses take all the risk.  Incentives create a willingness to try.  If there is no partnership, choices like solar, will die on the vine.” 

“We can live in this desert.  Really, we have plenty of water but it is not always in the right place,” Underwood added. “Basically, we have to live like dry land farmers, like the Native American Indians did centuries ago.”

This story is republished with permission from the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association’s Blue Print Newsletter.

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