Overcoming Drought Part I: Fighting the Hype By Brandi D. Thomas

On a Sunday morning in Somewhere, America, one of thecustomers that buys from the garden center you supply reads these headlines:"Spring rain only puts a dent in Eastern drought"; "NewMexico governor declares drought emergency"; "Maine residents fearworst is yet to come"; New York City isn't so splashy these drydays"; Dry Southwest, East at high risk for wildfires";"Drought emergency is in Maryland's future." Raising her eyesfrom the newspaper, she feels her throat constrict as a slight panic attackensues. She turns on the television, only to hear that the governor has imposedwater restrictions. Fearful, she peeks outside the window to make sure the skyisn't raining insects or that plague-ridden bodies don't litter thestreets. She imagines shriveled-up leaves dropping from the trees and hernow-blooming tulips drooping. She envisions judgment day. She wonders if herdays of planting water-guzzling impatiens in hedonistic bliss have come to adramatic end. Making a trip to the garden center to buy the annuals she wasgoing to fill her garden with suddenly seems like just too costly a risk.

Morbid media

"So far, the season's not been very good,"said Deborah Sweeton, president of Techni-Growers Greenhouses, Warwick, N.Y."It's early, so we're hopeful, but wholesale and retail aredown. Some of it's due to weather — it's been very cold inNew York so far, and we've had a lot of days of rain, but the frustratingthing is they're still saying we're down 15 inches. Even though wehad three inches in two days earlier this week, the news story is thatthere's still a drought. The media is killing us."

Sweeton is fortunate that her operation sits on top of anaquifer and that she doesn't have to worry about not having enough waterfor her own production. In the town where she lives, there aren't anywater restrictions. For the garden center customers she serves in a neighboringNew York county and an affluent county in Northern New Jersey, however,it's a different story. The reservoirs in both states are 20 percentbelow normal, so the authorities haven't yet lifted the mandatory waterrestrictions — restrictions that, in some cases, prohibit even gardencenters from watering their own stock. Consequently, they've not takenthe normal volume of material from Techni-Growers, consumers have been scaredout of planting, and Sweeton can only remain optimistic that her stock willjust take a little longer than usual to sell.

Techni-Growers is 60 percent retail and 40 percentwholesale, so Sweeton has regular contact with retail customers. They'vebeen telling her they're not planting — at least not annuals andnursery stock. Container plants, however, are still strong sellers. "Ijust don't think [the media] should be scaring people out of planting,which is what they're doing right now," she said, her toneeffectively conveying her frustration.

Having the nightly news and other media outlets tell youdaily that there is a drought and that water use is looking bleak is likehaving Alan Greenspan announce that the country is in a recession Ñpeople react accordingly, even if they don't fully understand thesituation. They spend less. In this case, however, the currency is water."I think the problem is that given the amount of time the media has tomake these stories, they have neither the time nor the inclination to try toget across the fact that things are operating on different timescales,"offered Rich Tinker, a drought expert for the Climate Prediction Center,National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). To extrapolate fromthis, things can easily get blown out of proportion. "A lot of attentionis paid to the East right now, but I'd say conditions are worse fartherout in the interior West right now and in South Texas. It's a combinationof factors: On one level, if you go back in history, you'll see periodsof drought and periods of wetness as far as the United States as a whole isconcerned. It's kind of a cyclic thing; we're in a droughty sort ofperiod right now and have been for the past four years," Tinker added,nonchalantly.

Wondering why

So why is it that so many regions, especially the EastCoast, are experiencing drought conditions? According to Scott Stephens, ameteorologist for the National Climatic Data Center, NOAA, "There are anumber of factors at play. We had a very mild winter along the Eastern seaboardand a persistent high-pressure system that really kept the stronger systems andfunnel systems from impacting the Eastern states. A lot of the heavier rain overthe winter season and into the spring has been in the Central states, from theTennessee Valley up into the Great Lakes. You can also trace it back to thelack of land-falling hurricanes over the past couple of years." Thoughsurely no one misses a devastating hurricane, they do serve a purpose: They canbe an important source of rainfall across the United States from summer intofall.

Another reason for the drought pattern has to do with LaNi–a, the opposite of El Ni–o, which translates to warmer-than-normalwinter temperatures in the Southeast, cooler-than-normal temperatures in theNorthwest and dry conditions in the East. El Ni–o, on the other hand,typically means increased rainfall across the Southern section of the UnitedStates and Peru, and drought in the West Pacific. Both of these weatherpatterns have been around since before man even created a word for"climate," but we've only been able to accurately measurethem for the past 30-40 years.

What about global warming? Since it can take 20 years toidentify a climate pattern, and global warming is a fairly new phenomenon thatonly dates back to the late 1970s, it's difficult to say whether or notit is responsible for widespread drought conditions. According to Steve Hu,assistant professor of atmospheric sciences, School of Natural ResourceSciences, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "It takes longer than one cycle[to evaluate a weather pattern]; in three or four cycles you can start thinkingof evaluating the warming effect on precipitation."

Coincidentally, the frequency of El Ni–o hasincreased over the past 20 years, right alongside scientists' observationof global warming. Whether or not they are linked, however, is anyone'sguess, and even the experts can't seem to say for sure. "It could possiblybe a cycle, and it could be related to climate change," said Stephensregarding the cause of the drought. "It's hard to say."

Learning from the past, from others

Stephens says that we've been in a La Ni–apattern since the latter part of 1998, but we may be heading into a weak ElNi–o in late summer and early fall. If this occurs, it could bode wellfor increased precipitation in the South.

In Georgia, Mike Cunningham is slightly more accustomed todealing with drought conditions than Sweeton is in New York. He grows annuals,perennials, shrubs, trees and drought-tolerant plants. During the wintermonths, he and his staff at Country Gardens Nursery tried to get people toplant their trees to establish them for the spring months so they could bettersurvive the dry summer. Like Sweeton, his production is not suffering fromcurrent drought conditions because he has his own well and isn't affectedby restrictions on municipal water. He does, however, rely on nature toconstantly replenish his well. "The spring has not been affected by thedrought, even though we're still behind a couple of inches right nowÑ we've had rain from April through the first of May, so some ofthe reservoirs are down, but they're not as bad as they were. Butprobably this summer, during our traditionally dry months, that's when wemight feel the effects of it," he explained.

Though he hasn't seen much of a difference in buyingpatterns this spring, he did last summer. There were water restrictions, andpeople bought fewer plants, putting off their purchases until the weatherimproved. Without a change in either regulations or consumer perceptions,Cunningham and other Georgia growers could be headed for the same fate thissummer; even though El Ni–o could be on its way, late summerprecipitation would be too late to help growers recoup costs lost from droughtconsequences earlier in the season. That's why Cunningham recently becamea part of the Georgia Urban Agriculture Coalition (GUAC), a sort ofhorticultural trade alliance that bands together professionals from thenursery, landscape, turf and other horticulture sectors. The group is taking aproactive approach by trying to work with the Georgia EPA, which setsregulations for water. Providing professional recommendations for the wordingused in water restriction regulations — with the landscaping homeowner inmind — is one of the most valuable contributions they can make to protectthe Georgia horticulture industry.

The latest water regulation imposed on Georgians involves housenumbers: those with odd-numbered houses water one day, even numbers the other.The GUAC noticed something strangely counterproductive about it. "Onething we're trying to do is offer alternatives for conservingwater," Cunningham said. "When this odd/even thing came out, webelieved people who might not even water anyway would do so because it'stheir day. We're trying to educate the public as far as how often theyreally need to water their lawns or shrubs or flowers; maybe they don'tneed to water every other day, even though that's the system."

The GUAC is spreading its educational message through localnewspaper articles, gardening books and the radio. "The greatest thing wecan do right now to help keep sales from being affected is to educate the public.We also have to look at other parts of the country that have been dealing withthis thing a lot longer than we have, like out West," Cunningham said."There are some innovative things going on out there that we'vebeen looking at. Instead of this odd/even system, you're rewarded for theconservation of water. Irrigation systems in the landscapes are becoming morehigh-tech, setting plants on timers by how many hours of water the plant needsper day. They assess the soil, weather and water, and that's programmedinto a computer, which adjusts the amount of water required by actual need, notsome timing schedule."

One of the things being done "out West" to helpkeep the message of drought from negatively impacting the industry is promotingdrought-tolerant plants (see sidebar, page 36). According to Reiner Krueger,technical services manager, Monrovia, Azusa, Calif., many communities nowrequire the use of drought-tolerant greenery for landscaping. "I think alot of times the media will distort the severity of things and that cangenerate mass hysteria, when maybe all it takes is switching over to moreshrubbery, less grass," he said. Instead of the media's interpretedgardening-or-nothing approach, growers can help by promoting plants that willpresent the least drain on precious water sources.

Positive pressure, positive press

The disconnect between watering information for plants andlawmakers that has resulted in uninformed regulations in some parts of thecountry and doom-and-gloom media is what prompted a Maryland grower to try tostem the tide. In January, Maryland politicians were talking repeatedly aboutthe lack of water and rainfall residents had experienced over the past 3-5months. The water table was down, the reservoirs were down, they said. InFebruary, the water volume increased, and yet every night, the weather reportsdroned on about drought.

Gary Mangum of Bell Nursery began to fear that waterrestrictions might coincide with the beginning of the spring planting season.He thought it was a good idea to address the problem politically, to provideinformation to politicians and persuade them of the value of gardening. SinceBell had worked with a government relations firm in the past, Mangum contactedthem and found out that for a certain amount of money he could hire them onretainer and gain access to the governor, the Department of the Environment andthe Department of Agriculture. Finding mutual interest in this issue amongother growers, Mangum contacted the Maryland Greenhouse Growers'Association about coordinating a meeting for interested growers. An email gotthe ball rolling. "We thought we might have 15 or 16 growers show up, butwe had over 70 show up for a meeting that was called with just a fewdays' notice. From that, we generated almost $40,000 in voluntarycontributions and were able to engage the government ç relations firmfor a year, as well as a media relations person," Mangum said.

The government relations firm successfully opened the doorsto the governor's office, so Mangum and others were able to sit downface-to-face with the staff people that were advising him. Though the dreadedwater restrictions were enacted in late March, the governor was very supportiveof gardening during a press conference and subsequent media interviews."One of the first questions he was asked was whether he would plant hisown garden given the dire straits related to water. He paused for just asecond, and said yes, absolutely he would," Mangum added.

The restrictions were sensitive to the needs of theindustry, a fact Mangum doubts would have been the case had they not been ableto make the political contacts that they did. Because of Mangum and theMGGA's meeting, the Maryland Department of the Environment now featuresresident watering tips on its Web site that Mangum and others created."It gives people good, common-sense tips for gardening and conservingwater at the same time," he said.

Additionally, Mangum and the MGGA have had 2-3 interviewswith evening news stations as well as a live, 4- to 5-minute segment on amorning news program. "Interestingly enough," Mangum reflected,"by having the media relations person involved, we've been able totake what they've wanted to talk about, which is drought and gardening,and change it around to just gardening and not really talk about drought atall. We've had a lot of positive media coverage that would not have beenpossible had we not engaged the media relations person."

Don't let the industry become a victim of uninformedwater restriction regulations and negative media in your community. Promotedrought-tolerant plants, turn your knowledge into positive press for consumersand help legislators understand the importance of gardening. If you needassistance with political involvement, ANLA offers tips on its Web site(www.anla.org) to help growers promote landscapes as a wise use of water tolocal decision-makers and consumers in its "Be Water-Wise" section.

Editor's note: Next month's article will discussmethods and products for reclaiming irrigation water.

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Brandi D. Thomas

Brandi D. Thomas is associate editor of GPN.

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