The Goldilocks approach: Arizona HOAs strive to balance lush grass with water conservation

A homeowners association in Chandler poured a lot on water on the green spaces it manages and still had brown and bare areas. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

CHANDLER – Jose Alvarez, a supervisor at R.H. Dupper Landscaping, stood up from changing a sprinkler nozzle on a large grassy area managed by a homeowner’s association in Chandler.

He surveyed the turf, a patchwork of green and brown. “It looks terrible,” he said. “The sprinklers, they don’t have enough pressure, and they spray, like, a little bit.”

He noted the rings created by uneven watering.

Josh Dupper of R.H. Dupper Landscaping in metro Phoenix says his industry lags in the technical knowledge needed to finely tune water use to weather conditions. (Photo by Bret Jaspers/KJZZ)

Josh Dupper said his company gets a lot of business fixing this kind of problem.

“Their (the HOA’s) water bills were through the roof because they were essentially flood irrigating,” Dupper said. “It still looked bad, even while they were spending a ton on water, and their landscaper just did not know what to do.”

Revamping the irrigation plan is the first step. Dupper Landscaping then will use historical evapotranspiration data and homemade software to determine how much a grassy area gets watered.

Crews are sent to each site monthly to take readings and adjust settings based on the weather forecast. It’s an attempt to take a Goldilocks approach to landscape watering: not too much, not too little, just right.

Lawns and landscaping are polarizing symbols when talking about water use in the desert. Some associations are paying homeowners to rip out their grass.

Others, including this Chandler HOA, are trying to save water on the green fields that residents adore.
In nearby Gilbert, Jeff Lee is trying to nudge HOAs to look at watering that way.

Lee, a water-conservation specialist for the town, traces an HOA’s landscape area using Google Earth Pro, converts that to square footage, then uploads the HOA’s monthly water usage to a vendor, Waterfluence. It analyzes the data using that month’s actual weather — not the historical weather conditions Dupper uses.

HOAs and landscapers can see the results on a web portal.

“We can actually show them the cost comparisons,” Lee said. “How many dollars they should’ve spent on water and how many dollars they actually did spend on water based on what the landscaper was doing.”

Lee doesn’t want HOAs to underwater their large greenbelts, trees and shrubs. The point is to let them know if they’re hitting that Goldilocks volume of water that maintains lush grass with low levels of waste.

The Gilbert program is both free and voluntary for HOAs. About 30 percent of the town’s 205 HOAs are enrolled, Lee said, estimating the program saves more than 200 million gallons of water a year.

If you’re using too much water, though, getting on track can be expensive.

Kayte Comes is a board member of her HOA in Peoria. When her housing development, the Village at Vistancia, chose a new landscaper, they hired a firm that prioritizes conservation. Upon that firm’s recommendation, the board decided to replace parts of the development’s irrigation system.

“Not every HOA, unfortunately, has the funds to do that,” she said. “But it’s going to save your HOA in the long run.”

She added that a lot of businesses are willing to work with customers to help them afford upfront costs.

Some HOAs and landscapers are turning to so-called “smart controller,” devices that adjust watering levels automatically. But Lee, Dupper and others say the smart controller is only as smart as the landscaper who programs it.

Landscapers in Arizona can get a license if they pass two exams and have four years of experience.

“Part of the problem with the industry is, it’s not advancing as fast as it should in the technical aspect,” Dupper said. “Because there’s no accountability or requirement to have it.”

There is a water limit the state of Arizona puts on HOAs in so-called “active management areas” in the middle of the state. Even then, it only applies to those with 10 acres of landscaping or more.

But with water scarcity and an increasing awareness of tech tools, more HOAs may be looking for that Goldilocks

This story is part of a collaborative series from the Colorado River Reporting Project at KUNC, supported by a Walton Family Foundation grant, the Mountain West News Bureau, and Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between public radio and TV stations in the West, supported by a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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