One year to go before City water meters begin counting in real dollars.
That must be a concern in a desert city where, during peak summer months, residents use twice as much water as the B.C. average — about 800 litres per day per capita.
Although the residential meter installation program is well along, metered billing will not begin until 2013. If a metered bill shows up in the mail in the interim, don't panic — it's only a simulation, a sample to inform people of their consumption.
It only stands to reason, in a semi-arid region where summer droughts are common and temperatures often scorching hot, that people tend to use more water.
Yet there may be another factor in this city's high consumption, said Chris Lawrence, service manager with Pronto Enterprises. The landscaping company's specialties include irrigation.
"It may have been the fact that we don't have metering," Lawrence said.
Preparations for the day when everyone pays for the volume of water they use are already underway, or so City staff have noticed. There have been more than the usual deposits of sod at composting sites.
"We're speculating that people who are expecting to see their water bill in a year are starting to rip it out," said Glen Farrow, City environmental services manager. "We're not encouraging folks to do this."
There is a whole range of options available in the water conservation toolbox before people reach for the spade.
The most obvious, for a start, is to water less. Underground sprinklers on automatic timers practically encourage people to water excessively, Farrow noted. Many homeowners believe that only frequent watering will prevent lawns from turning brown, but that's not the case. Some already have their sprinklers running, hoping to get a head start, perhaps, when the ground has just thawed.
With his own lawn, Farrow watered only once a month in May and June, yet his grass remained green.
"A big part of it is not enough top soil on some lawns," he said.
Older lawns in particular can be hampered by soil depletion, leaving not much more than clay and glacial substrates. These dry out faster than soil, providing little sustenance for the grass. That's often why Kamloops lawns turn brown so quickly. A top-dressing of soil, fine compost or mulch, repeated from time to time, can remedy this while enriching the soil.
Other ways to increase a lawn's drought resistance are commonly recommended for routine spring maintenance: dethatching and aerating. Removing the mat of thick grass that forms through winter allows water and air to reach the soil and save water from being absorbed by the dead material. Aeration — punching holes in the lawn — allows moisture, oxygen and nutrients to reach the roots. It also serves to loosen compacted soil.
Yet 70 per cent of residential water use goes to sprinkling, making it the No. 1 target for any conservation measures.
"Irrigation is obviously the biggest user, commercial and residential," Lawrence said.
Out of habit — and why not when water was seemingly abundant and free? — people rely on their handy timers, setting them for the drought season. Even if they follow the alternate-day sprinkling rule, respecting the bylaw, they are probably over-watering.
"Due to solar intake, we have water loss from the soil and the tissue of the plant," Lawrence said. "That is all that really needs to be replaced."
Three adaptations provide the greatest water savings, Lawrence said. Switching to low-precipitation nozzles allows better penetration of the soil, so less water is needed. Converting from sprinkler to drip irrigation is 15 per cent more efficient and the water is delivered straight to the roots. Upgrading sprinkling timers can also add efficiency. Then there's the ET route.
ET is short form for evapotranspiration, the combined moisture loss through evaporation from the Earth's surface and transpiration from trees and grass into the atmosphere. ET-based weather monitors are the new tech in irrigation. They come equipped with their own weather stations or are connected to remote weather stations through a paging service. The devices can save anywhere from 10 to 70 per cent of water wasted by taking into account changing conditions.
"There is a potential savings when you go to metering."
Such a system costs anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to install, depending on the size of the sprinkling system. Lawrence estimates savings — for a six-zone irrigation system on a typical suburban property — on metered water ranging from $100 to $150 over a six-month watering season. The system would pay for itself in five to 10 years.
From water-saving and cost-saving standpoints, ET monitors make sense. There's another factor to consider as well — the shoulder seasons.
"Also, with climate change, we're starting to get wetter shoulder seasons and dryer summers," Lawrence said, pointing to Environment Canada observations. "Obviously in the last 10 years, we've seen it definitely going that way."
Pronto, which specializes in commercial and residential irrigation systems, installed about 30 ET systems in the city last year. Prior to installation, they audit the sprinkling system to ensure it's designed properly and functioning efficiently.
The company is discussing with the City the possibility of introducing a rebate so homeowners can recoup some or all of the cost of ET monitors, Lawrence said. Other cities already have rebate programs.
He was working on a commercial system at Columbia Place last week that saves an estimated 7.2 million litres of water a year.
"It's just a drop in the bucket, but if everybody was doing it …"