Are you ready for the next drought?

By Calder Hendrickson, CEO, AquaSmart Global

When it comes to rainfall totals, the past few years have been pretty positive for folks who like things green, whether that’s a lawn, a golf course or a field of cotton. Unfortunately, it looks like meteorological conditions are starting to turn in the wrong direction, back towards the drought conditions that made the first part of this decade so tough. The question for people in Lubbock and across the American Southwest is, how do we keep things hydrated?

A big culprit in this situation is the North American weather pattern known as La Nina, whose milder, drier conditions generally alternate year by year with the more dramatic and rainy habits of her brother, El Nino. Caused largely by surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America, La Nina shows up in years with cooler surface temps which cause fewer storm systems. At present, La Nina is calling the shots on rainfall in the American Southwest and she’s not going anywhere until the end of this year at the earliest.

As people contemplate ways to keep things green and the water flowing from the faucet, weather isn’t the only obstacle. Driven by factors including growing populations, increased water use by businesses and the slow pace of reservoir construction, government entities ranging from city councils to municipal utility districts have been placing new restrictions on water use, further reducing the viability of traditional water use habits. Then, as water use declines, water providers have been making up for lost revenues by increasing the cost of water. (One study of America’s 30 largest metropolitan areas showed that water prices had increased by 41% between 2010 and 2016.) This leaves water users (aka everyone) in a serious bind.

Since the water may not be falling from the sky as frequently as it has and the water coming from the tap is not only restricted but also increasingly expensive, the solution to the hydration challenge of 2018 lies elsewhere.

One solution is to shrink the size of turf plots, but a golf course covered with Par 3 holes won’t draw much of a paying crowd and xeriscaping’s rugged beauty can be a tough sell in neighborhoods traditionally full of green lawns. Another solution is to switch to drought-resistant strains of grass, but changing out hundreds or even thousands of square feet of grass is a massively expensive headache.

If you can’t increase the amount of water added or reduce the amount of grass in question, the remaining option is to make better use of the water that’s available. Improvements in irrigation and recycling hold great potential, as does innovative materials science. There are scientists in labs across the country pursuing such solutions, including several who have worked with my company here in Lubbock. They have refined a technology that helps soil absorb the water it receives, then slowly release a steady, sustained flow of H2O.

A lot of turf experts tried out absorbent polymers ten years ago, but gave up in frustration when they ended up with lawns, fields and courses (and landscaping) swollen with unsightly gel and pellets that soaked up water but never released it. We’ve fixed that problem with our polymer-coated sands that can be added at any point in the life cycle of grass, from seeding or turf laying to top-dressing. I won’t bore you with the science, but our researchers cracked the code so that our sand not only absorbs twelve times its weight in water, but also methodically, slowly releases it for sustained hydration.

So, as our community, our state and region contemplate how to keep the grass green and the water flowing this summer, we can either attempt to affect the weather, change the government’s mind or rewire basic economics, or leverage some science. If you get a look at my lawn in August, you’ll know I chose the latter.

Calder Hendrickson is the founder and CEO of the Lubbock-based AquaSmart Global, a materials sciences innovator using simple materials to solve complex problems.