Of all the water we use, the great majority is dumped outside our homes; sprinkled on lawns – and often streets – to keep the grass green.

The island’s Beautification Advisory Committee’s annual community forum on Wednesday afternoon put water conservation front and center, to help save the planet, and incidentally put some money back in homeowners’ pockets. The forum hosted speakers from the Collier Soil & Water Conservation District, the city of Marco Island, and a master gardener to spread the word about the benefits of cutting down on water usage.

Speaking first, James “Nik” Nikolich of the Soil & Water Conservation District, who specializes in residential sprinkler systems, told the audience of about 40 they are almost certainly using more water on their lawns than they need too.

“Basically, everybody in Florida overwaters,” he said. “By law, you can water three days a week, but almost certainly, you don’t need to. It’s tough to get homeowners to only water two times a week.”

Nikolich shared common-sense tips including not watering already saturated turf, replacing worn-out sprinkler heads, and using concrete “donuts” around heads. Many sprinkler heads, particularly in swales where they are prone to being run over by vehicles, are broken, and the homeowners are typically unaware of it.

“The system goes off early in the morning, and nobody sees it. Plus, we see a lot of overspray, people irrigating the street, their house, or the neighbor’s lawn. Don’t apply water to black pavement – it won’t grow,” he said.

Rather than rely on guesswork, when Nikolich brings his Urban Mobile Irrigation Lab to a site for a free assessment, he takes multiple measurements, checking timing, monitoring system controls to be sure users are not inadvertently running multiple programs, leaks, broken sprinkler heads, and root depth.

Surprisingly, even now during the season, he can usually make a morning appointment for a home assessment within a week, he said. While the average household uses 5-6,000 gallons per month for domestic use, lawn watering takes more than twice as much water, conservatively averaged at 13,000, “and I see some homes that use way more,” said Nikolich. Former city councilor Larry Sacher estimated he saved about $1,000 a year on his water bill after doing the assessment.

One way to potentially save water bill dollars is to install a “companion meter,” said City of Marco Island customer service manager Michon Jackson. The companion meter separates out water used outside the home, such as lawn sprinkling, which does not therefore end up in the city’s sewer system and incur additional expense.

Installing the companion meter requires an $84 permit, and for a 5/8-inch meter, costs $155, a one-time charge, said Jackson. She also said city staff notices if usage takes a sudden surge at a given home, and the homeowner will be contacted – if the city has up-to-date contact information.

Master gardener Maria Schoenfeld focused on choosing the right plants for landscaping, and urged homeowners to transition their yards from expanses of grass to Florida-friendly plantings, along with mulch or rock.

“We would like to see much less turf – it’s our bumper crop,” she said. She displayed before and after photos to illustrate that attractive landscaping is possible, and even better, without over-reliance on grass.

The Community Forum used a different format this year, said Beautification Advisory Board member and former chairperson Susan LaGrotta.

“In the past, we did it more like a fair with booths. This year, we had the speakers at the podium,” she said, ensuring audiences would be exposed to their messages. “There’s been a lot of confusion on the companion meters, and everyone needs to cut down on water usage.”

LaGrotta and board vice chair Linda Colombo took the microphones to enable audience members to ask questions of the speakers.

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