Finding the Money in Water: The Smart Landscaping Boom

With the epic battle raging around AB32, you may have missed another piece of landmark California sustainability legislation. AB 1881, the Water Efficient Landscape Ordinance, lacks many of the buzzwords that we associate with sustainable business opportunities and green jobs, but don’t be fooled. This baby packs a punch.

Greener Pastures
AB 1881 mandates sweeping water efficiency measures in all new landscaping projects over 2500 square feet, covering everything from drip irrigation to the use of local plants to smart irrigation control systems. To meet these stringent requirements, the ordinance requires landscaping projects to be audited by certified landscape auditors. These requirements are coming online as we speak, as cities and counties around the state enact the mandates that AB 1881 requires.

Why should a bunch of pumps and green collar auditors be on our radar? Because landscaping is to urban water use what 18-wheelers are to gasoline. Of the 8.8 million acre-feet of water used by California’s urban areas, about 2.6 million are used for landscaping (1). The kind of efficient landscaping practices described in AB 1881 could save 20% of that water, possibly more. In a state that’s looking from a water crisis into the precipice of climate change, those water savings will be sorely needed.

We use a tremendous amount of energy to move and treat all that water; the embodied energy in an acre-foot of urban California water could run a microwave nonstop for four months (2).  Moving and treating landscaping water accounts for around 5% of our state’s total electricity use. That mean that some pumps and guys in green caps can save can save a whopping 1% of California’s electricity.

Mapping the Opportunity
According to the 2007 economic census landscaping in California is an $8.2 billion industry. AB 1881 could create some significant growth in that number, growth that will be captured by whoever is best poised to deliver water savings efficiently and effectively.

The winners will vary. Irrigation behemoths like Jaine Irrigation Systems will see a shift in their existing product mix, and may switch their strategy and partnerships accordingly. Groups like the California Landscape Contractors Association will see their ranks swell, and will see increased demand for everything from green jobs training to data services. Finally startups like Hydropoint, which specializes in smart web-based irrigation software, will be the best indicator of this emerging sector’s potential.

The real opportunity will come downstream. It’s common for states across the country to mirror California’s environmental legislation, and with water stress looming in areas that were once considered secure, there is every reason to expect AB 1881 to spend some time on the photocopier. Combine that with the pendulum eventually turning back in real estate development, and you’ve got an area that anyone interested in clean tech and green jobs should be keeping an eye on.

(1) Estimates on this number vary, this one comes from the California Water Plan’s section on efficiency.

(2) An average microwave takes a kilowatt of power, which makes it a useful example when talking about kilowatt hours (kWh). A research project at UCSB estimates that it takes an average of 3,519 kWh to move and treat an average acre-foot of imported urban water in California.  The rest of the stats about water and energy are derived mathematically.


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