FULL CUP | Volume 6

Phipps Conservatory: LEEDing the Way in Water

By Richard Piacentini, executive director of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, Pittsburgh, PA; past-president of the American Public Gardens Association; and member of the board of directors of the World Water Center.

Public gardens are in a unique position to help people make lasting changes in the way they garden and interact with the environmental. At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens we have been making significant changes to our gardening and other operational practices over the last few years and recognized that we could use this as an opportunity to help our members and the visiting public reduce their environmental footprint.

Gardening is the number one pastime in America. Unfortunately, while it adds beauty to our home and business landscapes, gardening is not always carried out in an environmentally friendly matter.

Pesticide and fertilizers contaminate our groundwater and waterways at an unprecedented rate. BeyondPesticides.org estimates that 78 million households in the U.S. use home and garden pesticides. Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 17 are detected in groundwater, and 23 have the potential to leach. Runoff from synthetic chemical fertilizer application pollutes rivers, streams and lakes and causes algae blooms, depleted oxygen, and damage to aquatic life.

Much water is also wasted through improper watering techniques and by our tendency to grow plants not adapted to our climate. In this case we are talking about plants that require more water then naturally occurs through rainfall.

At Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens we decided to make efficient use of water a high priority as part of an institutional commitment to sustainability. Interestingly enough, economics was not a consideration. When Phipps, a city owned and operated facility, was turned over to a non-profit to run in 1993, the lease called for the city to provide free water to the conservatory.

Our move towards sustainability took off when we got involved in the “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design” (LEED®) certification process and opened the first LEED certified building in a public garden with our new Welcome Center in 2005. One major component of LEED is related to efficient management of water. Use less, discharge less to sanitary systems,
and manage storm water runoff on site.

To minimize water use in the building we installed waterless urinals, automatic faucets with aerators, and low flow toilets. A green roof over most of the building also helped to capture rainwater. Drip irrigation, a system that is much more efficient than sprinklers, was installed in the planting beds surrounding the front entrance.

We then decided to go beyond the LEED requirements and began to make a whole series of changes, particularly in our outdoor water management activities. We removed the entire irrigation system from our front lawn and replanted the lawn with drought resistant endophyte enhanced grass varieties. We also adopted organic lawn care for the entire lawn to eliminate pesticide and fertilizer runoff to groundwater and waterways. We installed a series of six additional demonstration garden beds to feature sustainable plant recommendations. This includes native and non-native, non-invasive exotic plants that are adapted to our climate and do not need additional watering throughout the year. None of these beds have an irrigation system, nor do they need it.

To meet overflow parking needs, we installed a recycled plastic grid system in the lawn that allows us to park 150 cars on busy days with no negative impact on the lawn. In the meantime, the lawn is capturing rainwater, sequestering carbon, and producing oxygen. Not only does it look better then the most likely alternative, an asphalt parking lot, but it eliminates the problems a typical parking lot adds, like additional heat island effect and “What do you do with all the storm runoff?”

Within the Conservatory we eliminated bottled water from all of our meetings and rental events and soon after banned it from sale in our café. All noncirculating fountains were replaced with fountains using recirculating pumps. Minimizing pesticide use through an extensive IPM (integrated pest management) program meant we were not discharging water contaminated with pesticide residues.

In November 2006, we learned about the Living Building Challenge put out by the Cascadia Chapter of the US Green Building Council. A “Living Building” is a building that exceeds LEED Platinum, the highest level of green building to date, and is zero net energy and zero net water. We decided to accept the challenge and began to develop plans for treating our sanitary and storm water and make our own drinking water.

For sanitary we explored the use of a living machine and constructed wetlands. We settled on the constructed wetland and determined that not only could we treat the sanitary water from the new building, but our entire campus as well. To

Phipps Site Plan

capture and treat storm water runoff we selected a number of different strategies including bioretention areas (or rain gardens), green roof, porous pavement, subsurface flow treatment areas and lagoon. The lagoon would also act as a storage tank to provide irrigation water during the summer months.

In 2006, when we built our new 36,000 square foot production greenhouses and our new 12,000 square foot Tropical Forest Conservatory -- the most energy efficient conservatory in the world -- we set up the plumbing so that we could eventually capture all the rain water from the glass roofs for future use. We determined that this water was the best candidate for making potable water. We would collect it, filter it, and then sanitize it using a UV light system. However, current codes and regulations regarding drinking water may prevent us from completing this step.

All of these systems will be accessible and interpreted for the public and school groups. We also developed training programs for landscapers and home gardeners on how to manage their gardens in a more sustainable manner in a comprehensive program we call Project Green Heart.

We have seen a great surge in interest in public gardens across the country to be more sustainable and to use this as an opportunity to engage the public in understanding and adopting more sustainable lifestyles. Collectively, our impact can be great. Over 50 million people visit our public gardens each year for inspiration and learning. Exposing them to better water management in the garden can have a far reaching impact in our environment.

It has been said many times that water is the next oil. Careful use of water and respect for our ground water and waterways through our gardening practices will help ensure that this precious resource is available for future generations.

Other Items of Note

Water Quality of Potential Concern in US Private Wells

US Geological Survey, 27 March 2009

About 43 million people -- or 15 percent of the Nation’s population - use drinking water from private wells, which are not regulated by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

More than 20 percent of private domestic wells sampled nationwide contain at least one contaminant at levels of potential health concern, according to a study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

USGS scientists sampled about 2,100 private wells in 48 states and found that the contaminants most frequently measured at concentrations of potential health concern were inorganic contaminants, including radon and arsenic. These contaminants are mostly derived from the natural geologic materials that make up the aquifers from which well water is drawn. Complete findings are available online.

Nitrate was the most common inorganic contaminant derived from man-made sources such as from fertilizer applications and septictanks - that was found at concentrations greater than the Federal drinking-water standard for public-water supplies (10 parts per million). Nitrate was greater than the standard in about 4 percent of sampled wells.

The study shows that the occurrence of selected contaminants varies across the country, often following distinct geographic patterns related to geology, geochemical conditions, and land use. For example, elevated concentrations of nitrate were largely associated with intensively farmed land, such as in parts of the Midwest Corn Belt and the Central Valley of California. Radon was found at relatively high concentrations in crystalline-rock aquifers in the Northeast, in the central and southern Appalachians, and in central Colorado.

“The results of this study are important because they show that a large number of people may be unknowingly affected,” said Matt Larsen, USGS Associate Director for Water. “Greater attention to the quality of drinking water from private wells and continued public education are important steps toward the goal of protecting public health.”

To read the full USGS report on water quality of US private wells, visit:

Water Scarcity and Water Market Development

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, Water Issues Education Series
No. 5, March 13, 2009

Water scarcity is one of the most complex and pressing issues facing the arid western US. Compared with other economic sectors, irrigated agriculture remains the largest user of freshwater accounting for approximately between 70 and 95 percent of total water withdrawals.

Demand for water is growing and increasingly represents urban interest whose priorities for water use are divided among recreation, protection of wildlife and habitat, and human consumption.

Farmers are named as defendants in a number of lawsuits in the west, including Nevada, where the competition for water is fierce and occasionally volatile.

Water shortages and quality issues are likely to worsen over time. Water crisis management is not the answer, nor is the use of collaborative processes with no definable endpoint. The U.S. Department of Interior in their report titled, Water 2025: Preventing Crises and Conflict in the West (1998) outline several options for addressing anticipated water conflict.

These include more efficient water uses, cut back and/or eliminate existing water uses, develop alternative water resources (cloud seeding and desalinization) and transfer water between existing and new uses through market-based mechanisms such as water banking.

The development of water markets increasingly is proposed to satisfy increased water demand and resolve water disputes. In theory, the market place can direct the flow of water from lowest to highest value. Benefits to society from marketbased water transfers include the provision of water for recreation and urban consumption plus increased in-stream flow to protect wildlife habitat and ecosystem health.

In an effort to consume less water and consequently provide water in exchange for revenue, farmers may be more likely to invest in more efficient irrigation technology or grow less water intensive crops. In over-allocated systems, marketbased transfers could result in additional water supplies to help expand existing farm operations, “make whole” junior appropriators or supply other competitive nonagricultural uses.

To read the full Water Issues Education bulletin on this topic, visit:

IBM Unveils Global Innovation Outlook on Water

MSNBC MarketWire, 16 March 2009

IBM revealed the findings from its Global Innovation Outlook (GIO) on Water -- a series of brainstorming sessions around the world, that brought together hundreds of the world’s leading water management experts -- scientists, academics, businesses and governments -- to share knowledge and discuss strategies for improving the efficiency of the world’s water systems. The sessions revealed that society and business are facing some complex challenges when it comes to understanding and managing water resources on this planet. A lack of viable and actionable data was identified as a key inhibitor to effective water management.

Similarly, a new IBM study underscored a growing gap within businesses and organizations around acknowledging water issues and managing increasingly complex water processes. A majority of companies ranked water management as a top priority, but lacked necessary processes and systems for administration and control. For example, 77 percent of those surveyed felt that water management was extremely critical to their businesses, but 51 percent lacked formal guidelines for implementation. In addition, 63 percent of executives lacked access to integrated water management systems and decision support systems.

“Regardless of industry or geography, smarter water management is an issue faced by every business and government on the planet,” said Sharon Nunes, Vice President for Big Green Innovations at IBM. “Without sufficient insight into nearand long-term factors affecting your water supply and usage -- complex issues such as access, quality, cost and re-use -- you increasingly run the risk of failure.”

Brian Richterb, Director of The Nature Conservancy’s Global Freshwater Team commented, “Together with IBM, The Nature Conservancy is developing computer tools that will enable companies to gain a better understanding of the environmental and social consequences of their water use. By fostering sustainable water management practices, companies and municipalities will be able to make better decisions to the benefit of both local communities and nature.”

“Governments, industry and society need to work together to start to address these systems -- water, energy and agriculture -- in a more strategic and integrated way. We need to use a broader perspective,” added Joppe Cramwinckel, Sustainable Development Lead at Royal Dutch Shell.

To read the full GIO Water report online, visit:

Powered by: Register.com