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Drip dry

By Tony Kindelspire
The Daily Times-Call

LONGMONT — Mother Nature is parched, and the deeper into the winter we go, the worse the situation seems to get.

“It’s called tightening the belt — and they’re cinched up, all right,” said Stan Gardner, the owner of Gardner Turf farm near Keenesburg. “It feels like they’re cinched up around the neck, to be honest with you.”

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, Colorado’s mountain snowpack — which, when melted, accounts for 80 percent of the water that will fill the state’s lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams — is 25 percent below last year’s. That’s worse than even a month ago, when it was 15 percent below average.

Which means Gardner and others like him are preparing for the worst.

“There’s a very realistic chance that some of the sod growers might not survive this,” said Gardner, a member of the Rocky Mountain Sod Growers’ Association and the president of Turf Producers International. “The farms that have their ground paid for, they’ll probably be all right. But some of the newer farms ...

“I consider myself lucky because we have multiple operations. I have five farms throughout the Southwest, so I’m not going to have to rely on my Colorado farm.”

Like the state’s flora and fauna, those whose livelihoods depend on moisture are having to adapt — or perish. And most of them seem to feel that this year will be even worse than last.

“I had a couple of pretty big jobs (last year) that said, ‘OK, no plants, no grass. Just put some gravel and some edging down,’” said Brian Scott, the owner of Custom Environmental Design, a local landscaping company.

This year, Scott has added a new product to his arsenal that he said should prove popular in these dry times. He’s now pushing a “low-volume, grid-drip irrigation system” made by a company called Netafim. A “grid” of soaker hoses is laid underneath the surface of the ground, allowing for drought-friendly irrigation.

“It’s more expensive per square foot (than traditional sprinkler systems), but it uses less water,” Scott said. “You can keep grass green by using it every day, five to 10 minutes a day.”

He said that while the system is three times the cost of a traditional sprinkler system, it uses only about one-fifth of the water.

“It’s a lot more expensive, but probably after two years, your water-bill savings has paid for it,” said Scott.

While his eight-year-old business has traditionally focused on new homes and businesses, Scott said this year he’ll attempt to land more private homeowners as clients.

“I was thinking about going into Lafayette, where the water’s expensive,” he said. “There or Boulder.”

For businesses such as Rangeview Nurseries — at which people like Scott, landscape contractors, account for 80 percent to 90 percent of business — 2003 is very much a guessing game at this point.

“It’s really up in the air what kind of policies (the cities) are going to follow,” said Robert Ida, manager at Rangeview, located south of Longmont. “They probably won’t make those decisions until April or May, and by then we’ll already have about 70 percent of our inventory in.”

Aggravating the situation for people like Ida is that the plants and shrubs they bring in from the outside — about two-thirds of his company’s inventory — must be ordered up to a year in advance. Whether plants sell or gather dust can depend on the accuracy of that order — and on the actions of local politicians.

“(The cities) have a direct correlation to the landscape contractors,” Ida said. “They haven’t really given the landscapers a definite goal on what they’re going to allow them to put in.

“Even though there are plans for what they’re supposed to put in, those can change at the last minute. It really depends on the city — on who has the water and who doesn’t. So it’s really going to be a mixed bag all over the Denver metro area.”

Ida said last year wasn’t bad for business, but he’s keeping his fingers crossed for 2003.

“It was a good year because most of the water restrictions did not come about until the end of last year — until the end of September,” said Ida. “And 2003 could be a good year if they go on the same restrictions that they went on last year. But (cities) are saying they’re going to be more restrictive.”

The prospect of another dry and dusty summer has also led management at Budget Home Center to make some adjustments.

“We’re cutting back on plants this year — annuals and shrubs and things like that — because most people are talking about cutting back on those and using rocks and other types of landscaping,” said Butch Vernon, Budget Home Center’s president.

With that in mind, landscape fabric is “in” this year, as are things related to drip irrigation, or below-ground irrigation. “Out” are things related to traditional sprinkler systems.

Vernon also said his staff has been boning up on all things xeriscape.

“We actually started studying it more this year than anything else,” Vernon said. “Our lawn and garden department has been working to increase their knowledge in that area.”

Experts say that by the end of January, the state normally has received about 60 percent of its annual mountain snowfall. The fact that Colorado is way off that mark only adds to the uncertainty for people like Ida.

“It’s just going to be a difficult year for the landscaping industry,” he said. “But I think the one that is going to be hurt the worst is the sod industry.”

Gardner agrees. He’s already given up on business even being equal to last year and expects a worst-case scenario, “with restrictions across the board.”

If that happens, he said, “I would probably be at between 10 and 20 percent of last year. The way it looks, sales are going to be virtually nonexistent until fall.”

Gardner said that if things play out the way he thinks they will, he’ll probably have one employee working his farm this summer.

“In normal conditions, we typically employ nine employees on the farm and about 15 people out doing installs,” he said.

Tony Kindelspire can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 291, or by e-mail at tkindelspire@times-call.com.