Public perceptions are difficult to work with. Erroneous public perceptions are not only difficult; they are dangerous, especially when they become the foundation for bad public policy.
Yet, that could be exactly what is happening in Georgia with the state's recent watering ban in 61 North Georgia counties. The watering ban communicates to the public, legislators and policy makers that landscaping is "nonessential." This perception could not be further from the truth.
The urbanization and suburbanization of Georgia has been enormous, providing jobs, economic opportunities and stability for millions of people not only in Georgia, but also throughout the Southeast region.
It has also brought problems. Urbanization decreases water quality and increases water use. About one-half of the land cleared or disturbed for development is covered by impervious surfaces such as roads, roofs and parking lots, and is a significant contributor to the current "water crisis." Landscape, also known as urban agriculture, has become the best method for addressing these problems.
Landscapes are critical to water management and storage in an urban environment. Lawns, ground covers and vegetation are crucial to managing ground water and assist in retention, filtration and purification of a watershed.
Vegetative systems also increase the urban forest, remove CO2 from the air, reduce the urban heat effect, improve air quality, reduce stream pollution, provide critical wildlife habitats and provide a more aesthetically pleasing and sustainable environment. All of this is essential to maintaining good environmental health and a good quality of life.
Inadequate landscape and plant health can create additional irrigation and storm water costs for the public as well as flooding, pollution and erosion for surrounding properties. Fall and winter temperatures provide the optimum growing season for much of this vegetation, allowing several months of vigorous root growth, in turn requiring much less water in times of drought and allowing years of healthy growth.
Few people understand their own water use. Residential water use represents roughly 50 percent to 65 percent of all water use. Indoor water use is typically 80 percent of all residential water use. On an annualized basis, outdoor water use only accounts for approximately 20 percent of all residential water use.
An outdoor watering ban does nothing to limit most residential water use and waste, which happens inside the home. So no one should expect an outdoor watering ban to have much of an impact on the current water crisis. An outdoor watering ban only addresses the most visible element of the water use, not the crisis itself.
The watering perception problem also creates a huge economic problem for one of Georgia's largest and most vibrant industries. Urban agriculture in Georgia represents more than $8 billion in sales with 7,000 companies and more than 80,000 employees.
The industry includes retail garden centers, floriculturists, turf grass and sod growers, the nursery and horticulture industry, landscape architects, landscape installation and maintenance, green wholesalers, florists and golf courses, and their related businesses. It is the second largest agriculture industry in Georgia, just behind poultry and larger than all food and fiber production in the state.
Historically, the state has recognized the environmental and commercial interest of the industry by exempting all new landscape installation from watering restrictions for 30 days. Carol Couch, head of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, has been steadfast in her support for this vital exemption, and we applaud her for that commitment.
But some local water authorities are inventing improper interpretations of that rule or trying to ignore it altogether. This should not be allowed if good environmental practices are to prevail in a time of environmental crisis.
The urban agriculture industry is committed to being an active participant in helping Georgia through its current water crisis. And we will continue to work with the state and local water authorities as they search for solutions to the problems that are developing daily.
But we must insist that the state address the lack of water infrastructure, including water storage needs, so that it won't become necessary to address another water crisis by placing economic hardships on one of the few industries in Georgia that plays a vital role in improving environmental standards in our rapidly urbanizing state.
Mary Kay Woodworth is executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape & Turf Association and vice president of the Georgia Urban Agriculture Council. Contact: (770) 732-9832