The Irishwoman who’s an expert in conserving water in Florida
‘It never ceases to amaze me how quickly Ireland can be in drought conditions’
Deirdre Irwin: We don’t only conserve our water during drought conditions. Water conservation is a way of life in Florida. Photograph: iStock/Getty
When I graduated with a BSc in environmental science in 1989, jobs in Ireland were few and far between. I had a green card to work in the US, so I thought I would give that a try to build up my CV. I had every intention of returning after a couple of years.
I have now worked for the St Johns River Water Management District in Florida for 27 years. So much for that short sojourn in the United States. I just fell in love with Florida’s diverse nature – especially its herpetological diversity, with its lizards, snakes, salamanders and alligators.
About 90 per cent of the water supply is from the Floridan aquifer, a prolific freshwater source found in the limestone beneath Florida and parts of the southeastern US. With the state’s population exceeding 20 million and growing every day, conservation is essential to ensure an adequate water supply for everyone. We have longer, hotter summers and about 130cm of rainfall a year, compared with up to 200cm in Ireland.
I love helping the public and small water utilities understand how best to conserve water
For the past 10 years, we have implemented an irrigation restriction rule that limits lawn and landscape watering to two days in the summer and one day in the winter for all residential and commercial users. The watering restrictions are designed to ensure the efficient use of water for landscape irrigation, but also allow enough water to maintain healthy landscapes year-round.
These mandatory restrictions specify the time and day when watering may occur and the amount of water that may be applied. It is this comprehensive approach to water conservation that enables Florida’s economy to continue to grow while protecting natural resources.
I have specialised in water conservation for 12 years. St Johns River Water Management District is a regional water management agency. My average working day can involve anything from helping an irrigation design professional, to attending meetings about water conservation quantification. I love helping the public and small water utilities understand how best to conserve water.
I have heard about the water shortages in Ireland and it never ceases to amaze me how quickly Ireland can be in drought conditions. I remember many summer droughts when I was growing up in Co Meath, and our efforts to reuse water for plants after indoor use. We had a cistern in the attic to back up a well, and only in later years I realised how creative and forward thinking my father was to build this water feature into our home in Dunshaughlin. The cistern came in very useful in dry summers.
The average person in the region where I live uses 340 litres a day, close to three times the amount a person uses in Ireland. During the dry season, from March to June, that amount can increase considerably. People use more water in Florida than people in Ireland mainly because of outdoor residential irrigation. Almost all new homes are built with an in-ground irrigation system, and that close to doubles a homeowner’s use.
From what I have seen, Ireland is in many ways ahead of Florida when it comes to conserving water. Most new homes are built with high-efficiency plumbing fixtures and no outdoor irrigation systems. High-efficiency washing machines have been the norm for decades, but they are somewhat recent in the US.
Water conservation in Ireland is likely to be behaviour driven, and as drought is usually short-lived, this can be achieved by modifying daily use. One unusual tip I heard recently from the makers of Levi’s jeans is that it is better to wash jeans only after the fifth wear, so rewearing clothes in general is a good idea. Other tips are to take shorter showers (no baths), not to hand-wash dishes (as dishwashers are typically more efficient) and to reuse water for watering plants.
Water is essential to the life and the economy of Florida, and critical to the survival of plants, animals and humans. We don’t only conserve our water during drought conditions. Water conservation is a way of life in Florida.