Image courtesy of the City of Scottsdale, AZ
Parks and natural greenspaces have played a relevant and beneficial role in society for a long time – touchpoints for connecting with each other, spaces for recreation and sport, and a place to celebrate special occasions. But as climate change alters the way we interact with these greenspaces, many park agencies are implementing innovative methods to save water – and money.
Out West, cities like Scottsdale, Arizona, and Denver, Colorado are seeing firsthand how a warming planet is draining water supplies. This has forced municipalities to reconsider the best way to keep their parks green, without perpetuating waste.
For more than two decades, Scottsdale and Denver have prioritized implementing more efficient irrigation technologies and experimenting with native landscaping in their parks. Scottsdale’s parks routinely use 15 percent less water than its annual allotment. In 2022, the parks used 25 percent less than allotted.
“Being good stewards of our water has been something that Scottsdale Parks and Recreation has done for a long time,” said Nick Molinari, the department’s director. “That’s resulted in significant savings – millions and millions of gallons of water savings annually.”
Across its 43 parks with more than 1,000 acres, the city has saved 3 billion gallons of water in the last quarter century. And with an ongoing drought stifling the city’s limited water supply, Molinari says it’s crucial that the city effectively maintain its parks and pools to avoid detouring a key portion of the city’s revenue: tourism.
“Any kind of broad-based water restrictions could be detrimental to our economy,” Molinari said. “If we conserve water effectively, we will continue to be a viable destination community for our residents and our visitors.”
Denver has also partnered with Rain Bird to install Central Control Systems. They’ve installed more than 700 smart irrigation controllers that detect water in the atmosphere and allow city staff the ability to make quick changes through these mobile controllers, if needed.
“We can now adjust and be nimble to changing weather,” said Demian Wetzel, water conservation manager for Denver Parks & Recreation. “When rain comes in, we can shut down irrigation controllers and save upwards of 20 to 30 percent of water usage.”
Switching to this type of irrigation system in just 79 acres of park space saved Denver more than 23 million gallons of water and $50,000 in just one year. The goal is to soon have all 3,000 acres of the city’s park space irrigated by these smart controllers, and the savings could be substantial. While every park acre and yearly precipitation rate differs, the smart irrigation systems could save the city more than $2 million each year once they’re all installed.
Image courtesy of the City of Scottsdale, AZ
Scottsdale also committed to replacing much of its non-functional turf with xeriscape landscaping, or native plants and grass that don’t need much water. The city is in the process of replacing 42,000 square feet of turf with native grass between two parks. Molinari estimates the city will save more than 2.1 million gallons of water each year between those projects.
“When you consider removal of turf, heavy equipment, irrigation install, irrigation design, all of that contractual commodity kind of stuff is very expensive,” Molinari said. “But it results in perpetual, forever water savings. We’re going to save every year from now until the end of time. So, that’s big.”
The city hasn’t turned away completely from regular grass turf, which needs more water to stay green. Scottsdale is constructing two soccer complexes with 11 sports fields, but it will use reclaimed water or recycled wastewater to care for the lawns.
“People love green grass, and it’s an important piece of a community,” Molinari said. “So being able to effectively grow green grass is important. But being able to do that with the least amount of water is even more important.”
For the last seven years, Denver has also been experimenting with using recycled wastewater on the trees in its park system. They’re determining which species can thrive on this source because it costs the city only 10 percent of the cost of regular water.
“These alternative water sources are the future when you’re talking about irrigating thousands of acres,” Wetzel said.
Down in Florida, the city of St. Pete Beach is using reclaimed water for tasks such as landscape irrigation to save money for the municipality. The city’s website defines reclaimed water as “highly treated wastewater,” and through its use, St. Pete Beach saved $100,000 during the 2022 fiscal year. The St. Pete Beach Water Conservation Program also educates both business owners and citizens on the benefits of using reclaimed water.
In discussing the program with independent newspaper, The Gabber, City Manager Alex Rey said the dedication to (water) conservation of the city’s residents and businesses helps the city work towards “a more sustainable future.”
The combination of our warming planet and the pressing need for financial efficiency in city government will continue to spark the importance of developing innovative solutions. By making water usage a tool for saving money, cities, towns, and villages can further protect themselves from the uncertainty of climate change, while bolstering their financial capacity to tackle other pressing needs in their communities.