When most people think of droughts, they don’t picture the green deciduous forests of the Northeast. Growing up in Massachusetts, I certainly didn’t. It wasn’t until I visited relatives in New Mexico as a kid that I got to experience the issue up close.
At the time, my family there lived in an off-grid house known as an Earthship, which deals with the dry environment in an unconventional way. Utilizing captured rainwater from the roof, all their faucets, showers and toilets ran on grey water, which would then be recycled for multiple uses. To optimize this system in a high-desert climate, one had to be very waterwise. Rules I’d never heard of before, like “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down,” became like scripture for me during those trips.
Despite that memorable introduction, my awareness for water conservation would quickly fade upon returning home to the land of flushing toilets (a.k.a. Boston). Even 20 years later, I still notice that tendency to associate real water problems with distant places in the West. That was until 2022, when those problems came home to roost.
“Extreme” Severe Drought
In summer 2022, Boston experienced its fourth-driest stretch of weather in more than 100 years. By the end of August, 94% of Massachusetts had the designation of “severe drought,” with our primary service area categorized as “extreme.” Full-on water bans went into effect for many parts of the state, while lawns turned brown and crispy.
As things continued to dry up, I wondered how our water features were faring. For years, Falling Waterscapes has promoted the water-saving benefits of ponds and pondless features to our clients, but mostly in comparison to water usage required for lawns —and never during a full-fledged drought. As I waited for calls from concerned clients to pour in, the phone stayed surprisingly quiet. Only a handful of people reached out to ask whether it was okay to top off their features given the restrictions. I kept thinking to myself, why aren’t more people calling?
At the start of fall maintenance season in October, I got my first answer to that question when I stopped by a client’s house in Dover.
Sustainable Water Feature Proves to be an Enduring Oasis
Elaine, an elderly woman who loves birds, had become our client back in 2021 when we built her a 17-foot-long pondless stream with several wide pooling areas. For her build, we had incorporated an oversized 400-gallon reservoir to allow the feature to run in freezing conditions (as we often do for many of our features). The idea, in her case, was to provide a dependable water source for the birds to drink from during winter when open water becomes scarce.
Given her age, an enlarged reservoir also made sense to reduce maintenance tasks like regularly pulling out a hose out to fill up the basin. While these details would help the feature conserve more water, it was by no means designed to be self-sustaining. However, to my surprise, Elaine said she hadn’t filled up the feature up once —not since we had first built it a year earlier.
Shocked, I decided to do some math to understand how this was possible. Using a standard evaporation equation, I multiplied 0.5% (0.005) by the hourly flow rate of her pump. At a rate of 2,500 gallons per hour, her feature would lose about 12 ½ gallons per day. Factoring in 400 gallons of storage capacity, this meant Elaine’s feature could last 30 days or so without needing to be refilled in the event it didn’t rain. That’s a pretty healthy buffer, considering we still received some minimal precipitation as well during even the driest stretches.
Additionally, the previous equation doesn’t factor in variables like Massachusetts’ humidity, the lack of sunlight in Elaine’s shaded backyard and the minimal amount of splashing from the feature. Realistically, she lost even less water than the equation suggests, which explains why her feature did so well.
Throughout the fall, I heard more success stories like Elaine’s. At each service visit, my clients emphasized that their features used surprisingly little water. While a portion did require occasional top-offs — like ponds without underground storage reservoirs — the amount needed was far less than what both they and I had expected. When they did fill up, however, it’s important to note that they acted in accordance with their municipality’s rules, which continued to allow intermittent hand-watering for gardens. Generally speaking, the bans applied to automatic irrigation systems, sprinklers, washing cars and filling pools.
Some who aren’t familiar with ecosystem ponds might flinch when they hear that last part, but a pool and a pond are two completely different animals. One is a sterilized system where no life grows, while the other sustains it, becoming a vital resource for beneficial insects, reptiles, amphibians and other biota during the drought.
Others might try to refute that interpretation, but the facts on the ground don’t support their argument. From the data points I gathered last year from our clients, their features used very little water to begin with, required only modest supplementation and had a net-positive impact on the surrounding stressed-out ecology. Does it get any better than that?
More Sustainable Water Features
Believe it or not, it does! Down the road from Elaine, we designed a rainwater harvesting water feature for a client that’s even more sustainable than our standard projects. This particular feature starts off with two gentle 10-foot tributaries that converge into an 8-by-14-foot koi pond. From there, the water flows beneath a stone-slab bridge and cascades an additional 35 feet down the hillside where it terminates into a large reservoir. The reservoir is capable of storing 2,000 gallons of water and ties into multiple downspouts on the house. During rainstorms, the system captures roughly 850 square feet of precipitation, 450 of which comes from the footprint of the feature itself, and the remaining 400 comes from the roof.
To put those numbers into perspective, 1 inch of rainfall equates to more than 500 gallons of water captured and stored. On average, the Boston area receives more than 40 inches of rain annually, which amounts to 20,000 gallons of total water captured (or 1,600 gallons per month). Factoring in the feature’s evaporation rate of losing 30 gallons per day (or 900 gallons per month), we average a 700-gallon surplus each month — more than enough for this system to run self-sufficiently during a prolonged drought like in 2022.
Thanks to Mother Nature’s tough test last year, I now feel reassured and inspired. Our water gardens are proving to be phenomenal elements of sustainable landscaping that are capable of conserving water, providing local ecology some relief and so much more.
In a time when people are making sacrifices in their yards, water features present a compelling alternative. They show that’s it possible to have a beautiful landscape that’s also environmentally friendly and resilient. Simply put, they make it convenient for people to be sustainable — often antithetical to many changes the Green movement posits.
From where I’m standing, I see these features as part of a much broader solution to problems rising on the horizon. However, some municipalities don’t view them that way and have labeled water features as the enemy.
Shot Heard Round the World
Earlier this year, some disconcerting news surfaced within the Certified Aquascape Contractor (CAC) community. A fellow CAC from Colorado posted about a recent water-conservation measure in Aurora, Colorado with the potential to affect all of us.
In a well-intentioned move to save water, Aurora moved to restrict what people can and cannot do when it comes to landscaping. A newly added section of the City Code, (section 138-191) now specifically limits “the use of turf and ornamental water features … to help Aurora meet future water needs in the interest of health, safety, and general welfare of the residents.”
In no uncertain terms, the code states that “the use of water in all public and private exterior ornamental water features and ponds is prohibited” and defines ornamental water features as “any exterior decorative fountains, waterfalls, basins, ponds, lakes, waterways or similar aesthetic structures.”
Simply put, it has become illegal to build water features in this Colorado town. While the news is shocking and disappointing, it’s tempting to ignore it when you’re located 2,000 miles away in Boston or any other region that doesn’t have the same historical water constraints.
However, a local event that happened in Massachusetts nearly 250 years ago makes me think twice before sweeping this story under the carpet. Back on April 19, 1775, hundreds of British troops marched into Lexington, Massachusetts, and confronted a small group of minutemen. Shortly thereafter, someone fired a musket and what ensued was a battle that started the Revolutionary War. We now refer to that skirmish as the “shot heard round the world,” and I’m afraid Aurora may have just fired the equivalent bullet on the water feature industry.
While Aurora is just one town, rumblings throughout Colorado indicate that more towns may follow suit with the state itself potentially stepping in to adopt these new restrictions. If this trend continues and Colorado becomes the first place to ban outdoor water features — as it did with rainwater harvesting systems that store more than 110 gallons — what could the consequences mean for the rest of the country? If things play out like the Revolutionary War, a ban on water features could spread far beyond just a few towns.
At face value, restrictions might seem like a good thing, but they’re really an act of friendly fire. Water features, as everyone in our industry knows, are often amazing conservation tools for water and wildlife (just like they were for my clients last year). To lump them in with turf grasses as Aurora did shows a major lack of forethought and looks to be self-sabotaging. With a little bit of research, they’d discover that many types of water features are part of the solution — not the Boogeyman they think.
Moreover, if they actually looked under the bed, they’d find that the people comprising the water feature industry share many of their same sustainability values. So how did we find ourselves mistakenly placed on the other side of the line in this case?
Perception vs. Reality
It seems to be a matter of perception versus reality. Water features inherently convey an image that on the surface makes them look wasteful. While this assumption couldn’t be farther from the truth, the optics speak for themselves before the data.
This problem isn’t unique to our industry. Earthships, the eco-houses I described earlier, faced similar hurdles at their inception. Most notably, building departments refused to approve the structures because they used old truck tires with packed dirt for their walls. Michael Reynolds, the founder of the concept, knew these walls were strong (much stronger than traditional 2-by-4 framing, in fact) and decided to arrange a test to prove it.
In a calculated move, he drove a large truck over a section of rammed-earth tires in front of the inspectors to demonstrate their strength. Needless to say, it worked, and they approved all of his walls from that day forward.
While this example comes from the Wild West of New Mexico in the ‘80s, the message applies to us here and now. It’s up to us to educate and guide those who are making significant policy changes surrounding water features.