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Pondering irrigation and our place in the water cycle

Pondering irrigation systems and our place in the water cycle

Why do we have irrigation systems in Florida? What are irrigation system requirements? How do homeowner yard practices impact Florida’s water?

Why irrigate in Florida?

Why are irrigation systems abundant in Florida? Think about all the places you’ve lived.  When was the first time you encountered an irrigation system?  When I look back over the years, I did not have an irrigation system until I bought my first home in Florida.

As we all know, water is the essence of life and is necessary for plant growth.  Florida experiences a wet and dry season, with the wet season ranging from June to August and the dry season ranging from October through May. Irrigation or at least hand watering is often necessary during the typically hot, dry months of September and October and again in April and May. On top of our extreme rainfall patterns, the state Florida soil is Myakka fine sand with limited ability to hold water and nutrients. When Florida’s sandy soils experience drought, sometimes to the point of being hydrophobic, it is time to turn the water on for plant survival.

It’s important to realize that irrigation supplements rainfall, many people often think about this backwards and that rainfall supplements irrigation.  As Florida homeowners, we need to get away from this kind of thinking to better conserve water.  When weather is hot and dry, even a well-designed irrigation system can only do so much.  Lawns will often be parched and water stressed especially when systems are poorly designed or experiencing problems.  Again, an irrigation system supplements plant water needs, but is not a long term replacement for rainfall.

What are irrigation system requirements?

Per Florida statute 373.62 Water conservation; automatic sprinkler systems.—
(1) Any person who purchases and installs an automatic landscape irrigation system must properly install, maintain, and operate technology that inhibits or interrupts operation of the system during periods of sufficient moisture. https://m.flsenate.gov/Statutes/373.62.
This means that technologies such as a rain sensor or soil moisture sensor must be included on an irrigation system to bypass irrigation events when moisture is adequate.

(2) A licensed contractor who installs or performs work on an automatic landscape irrigation system must test for the correct operation of each inhibiting or interrupting device or switch on that system. If such devices or switches are not installed in the system or are not in proper operating condition, the contractor must install new ones or repair the existing ones and confirm that each device or switch is in proper operating condition before completing other work on the system. https://m.flsenate.gov/Statutes/373.62.

How does my home landscape impact Florida’s water bodies?
Watersheds and the water cycle

This drainage ditch feeds water from excessive rain or irrigation into a nearby lake. The water is not treated on its journey.

We all live in a watershed and at the most basic level, a watershed is an area of land that drains into a body of water, be it a lake, river, stream, or ocean. Water falling on my yard drains into a swale near my home and enters a large nearby lake, Lake Dora. My yard’s watershed is Lake Dora, but if you expand the scale it would also be the Harris Chain of Lakes. The Harris Chain of Lakes feeds into the Ocklawaha basin, then the St. Johns’s River and eventually the Atlantic Ocean. My yard has a part to play in the health of all these bodies of water.  Watersheds can be really small, but they are all part of a bigger picture.  Do you know where the water goes that lands on your piece of property?   I encourage you to find out.

With a better understanding of watersheds, let’s review the water cycle. My husband can still tell you the basic water cycle because his grade school science teacher stood on his desk and shouted it out to the students frequently, “Evaporation, Condensation, Precipitation!” We must also include infiltration which is water percolating down through the soil and evapotranspiration which is a combination of evaporation and water loss through plant leaves.  In general, water that does not evaporate or infiltrate down through the soil often becomes stormwater runoff.  Stormwater runoff is rainfall that moves offsite by either landing on paved surfaces or falling in such abundance that it quickly flows over the land.  What we do on our own piece of property can either reach water bodies through infiltration, stormwater runoff, or both.

What are common practices that negatively impact water quality and quantity?
  • Fertilizing at the wrong time of year, during the cool season, or just before a heavy rain
  • Blowing or washing grass clippings and leaves into a storm drain or a nearby water body
  • Not cleaning up after pets
  • Irrigating too much, too frequently and for too long. This can carry nutrient sources into our watersheds.
  • Highly maintaining areas around lakes, retention ponds, etc.
  • Construction or disturbing the soil so much that sediments enter our storm drains

The above practices can all contribute to nonpoint source pollution when too much nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment moves offsite. Consider that nutrients can pollute whether they are from inorganic sources (synthetic fertilizers) or organic sources (pet waste, compost, or leaves).

We can positively impact water bodies by decreasing our contribution to nonpoint source pollution.
  • Fertilize only if needed and when plants are actively growing
  • Plant the right plant in the right place which helps decrease irrigating and fertilizing frequently due to poor plant choice.
  • Put grass clippings and fertilizer back onto lawns and landscapes by sweeping them up from paved surfaces
  • Pick up pet waste and dispose properly
  • Add a buffer around water bodies of wetland and transition plants such as cypress, maple or ornamental grasses that can take fluctuating water levels.

The way we maintain our individual yards matters. Practice Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM and collectively we can make a difference.

More Florida irrigation system tips, along with full color books on the 9 Florida-Friendly LandscapingTM principles are located at https://ffl.ifas.ufl.edu/.

Please let me know how you irrigate efficiently and protect bodies of water. To check out UF/IFAS Extension, Lake County gardening classes please visit www.lakegardeningprograms.eventbrite.com.

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