AWE Research Shows Landscape Transformation Programs Can Stretch Community Water Supplies

Market Analysis and Consumer Survey Determine Homeowners Ready for Sustainable Landscapes


  • Community-driven programs found to produce water savings that boost resiliency and lower costs
  • Survey shows consumers are disconnected from outdoor water use and incorrectly believe they are efficient users
  • Homeowners are ready for new landscape ideal, desiring beautiful, low-maintenance, and water-efficient landscapes  

CHICAGO, Ill. – February 14, 2019 - As cities face growing challenges ensuring a safe, reliable, long-term water supply, new research from the Alliance for Water Efficiency proves that urban landscapes represent a promising source of untapped water savings that can help stretch existing water supplies and increase resiliency to potential shortages.

AWE’s Landscape Transformation study, the most expansive and diverse assessment to date of outdoor water efficiency programs, revealed that single family customers achieved average savings ranging from a 7 percent reduction in water use up to 39 percent after participating in a program. The research, conducted over a two year period, included 14 community-driven programs, including incentives for efficient irrigation technologies, free distribution of mulch, turf removal and water-wise re-landscaping, and customer site audits.

An accompanying survey of more than 3,000 North Americans revealed that homeowners are ready to embrace a new landscape ideal. With the support of well-designed programs, they achieve water-efficient landscapes that support homeowner goals, community water objectives, and healthy watersheds.

“We’ve made great strides in reducing indoor use over the past several decades, but communities are far from done with water conservation and efficiency,” said Mary Ann Dickinson, President and CEO of the Alliance for Water Efficiency. “There are still significant water savings to be found by changing the way we look at our lawns. As communities consider their long-term supply options, they should look at landscape transformation programs to help their water utility avoid more costly infrastructure-based solutions.”

Urban Outdoor Water Use Offers a Solution to Water Availability Challenges  

The program analysis revealed that water savings were achieved in every community, regardless of the climate, program type, incentives for participation, available customer support, and requirements. Reducing water use in landscapes also helped reduce peak demand in participating communities, which determines system capacity needs. This helps delay or avoid investments in new water infrastructure and keeps costs down for customers. Additionally, these water savings proved to be persistent and increased with time, indicating that initial investment costs will be recouped. 

These are significant findings considering the savings opportunity presented by outdoor water use. According to the EPA, nearly nine billion gallons of water are used each day outdoors, mainly for landscape irrigation. In addition, as much as 50 percent of water used outdoors is wasted due to evaporation, inefficient or broken equipment, and overwatering.

“Communities from Sacramento to Fort Collins have been testing innovative approaches to help homeowners make their landscapes more sustainable. This research shows that these programs work,” said Thomas Chesnutt, Principal of A & N Technical Services, Inc. and Research Study Lead. “Even better, these are high-value savings that lower long-term costs for both water providers and customers. They’re also persistent water savings that grow as homeowners continue to improve their sustainable landscapes, making these programs a smart investment for communities.”

Homeowners Generally Disconnected from Outdoor Water Use  

Despite the clear benefits of reducing outdoor water use, homeowners are generally uninformed about the water they use outdoors. More than half of homeowners (53 percent) believe they use 10-30 percent of their overall water outdoors, according to AWE’s survey. In fact, most homeowners use 30 to 60 percent of their water outdoors, depending on the region and climate. 

AWE’s survey also revealed homeowners believe they are already efficient outdoor water users. Almost half (41 percent) responded they already owned water-efficient sprinklers; but industry manufacturers report that less than 20 percent of sprinkler head sales are for efficient models. 

Homeowners Ready to Transform Their Landscapes, But Need Assistance AWE-Infographic-Landscape Transformation LRM edit 

Survey respondents want landscapes that are beautiful, low-maintenance, and water-efficient, indicating a growing interest in sustainable landscapes. Low water use was one of the top three selected landscape attributes (42 percent) - just behind beauty (55 percent) and easy care (48 percent). The survey also showed that North Americans believe a beautiful outdoor space contains a variety of features. More selected trees and shrubs (87 percent), flowers (79 percent), and an entertaining space (73 percent) than lawn (69 percent) for their ideal landscape. 

Water customers are ready for different landscape approaches and becoming more aware of water-efficient options. More than seven in 10 respondents (79 percent) were dissatisfied or only somewhat satisfied with their current landscaping, and half (50 percent) believed their lawns are unhealthy or only partially healthy. The majority (60 percent) knew someone who had put in alternative landscaping, and more than eight in 10 (85 percent) like the new look or feel neutral about it. Of those who had participated in a program, 91 percent were satisfied with their new landscape. 

“Beautiful landscapes are a source of pride for homeowners, but the emotional connection we have with our outside spaces is not in conflict with a more sustainable approach. People also want to be smart water users,” said Dickinson. “Whether it’s installing a more efficient irrigation system, opting for drought-tolerant turf, or re-landscaping with climate-appropriate plants, we need to communicate that a sustainable landscape can be beautiful and water-conscious.” 

“This study highlights our success improving water-use efficiency across the San Diego region,” said Jim Madaffer, chair of the San Diego County Water Authority’s Board of Directors. “We empower program participants to take a hands-on approach to WaterSmart living, and it’s gratifying to see their pride of ownership in these projects that are changing the way San Diegans think about landscapes. An enhanced environment and happy homeowners are part of the promise of sustainable landscaping.”

Homeowners are also looking to water providers and professionals to help them change their landscapes. More than eight in 10 (85 percent) believe they would need assistance with a landscape makeover, such as with design (39 percent), implementation (24 percent) and irrigation installation (10 percent). For more than half (52 percent), cost is a concern, and nearly half (45 percent) indicated a monetary incentive would motivate them to make changes. 

The Alliance for Water Efficiency launched its Outdoor Water Savings Research Initiative in 2015 to identify and clarify what programs, practices, and irrigation technologies can support effective utility-driven outdoor water efficiency programs. Seventeen municipalities and businesses contributed data and funding to this collaborative effort, including Austin Water Utility (TX), California American Water (CA), California Urban Water Agencies (CA), City of Fort Collins (CO), City of Guelph (Ontario, Canada), City of Petaluma (CA), City of Sacramento (CA), City of San Diego (CA), City of Santa Rosa (CA), City of Seattle (WA), Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (CA), North Marin Municipal Water District (CA), Region of Peel (Ontario, Canada), San Diego County Water Authority (CA), Sonoma County Water Agency (CA), Southern Nevada Water Authority (NV), and The Scotts Miracle-Gro Foundation (OH). 

Click here to access the full research reports and supporting materials.

Click here to view an infographic outlining the study's findings.

Click here to view a webinar presentation launching the research, featuring a panel discussion from several of the study participants and organizers.


About the Alliance for Water Efficiency  

The Alliance for Water Efficiency (AWE) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the efficient and sustainable use of water in North America. Working with more than 450 water suppliers, business and industry, regulatory and advocacy organizations, AWE delivers innovative tools and training to encourage cost-effective water conservation, cutting-edge research, and policy options necessary for a sustainable water future. 

Megan Chery, Manager of Development
Alliance for Water Efficiency