PICTURED: There are lots of ways to conserve water

by David Goldstein

Most methods of reducing waste and conserving water complement each other, but sometimes, there can be only one.

Woody mulch vs. fine compost as a top dressing

Mulch is a material applied to the garden surface, and compost is a product decomposed to a consistency like soil, but compost does not function well as mulch. Compost is better for adding nutrients and improving soil structure only if mixed into soil during planting. Shredded woody material is better if your garden is already in place, and you want a top dressing. Woody mulch conserves water by shading the ground it is spread upon, cutting soil temperatures, reducing evaporation, and suppressing weeds. 

Surface application of compost can also too easily become a bed for weed seeds, causing unwanted plants to suck up water intended for a planned landscape, according to Dr. Ben Faber, a University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor, based at the university’s Ventura office. 

This is not to say the compost itself likely has weed seeds. Dave Green, CEO at Agromin, emphasized, in the compost process, “Billions of microbes . . . consume the weed seeds (and) windrow temperatures reach over 130 degrees, killing . . . seeds.” 

Zoysia plugs vs. Miniclover

On sales-oriented websites, retailers of these grass varieties document the ability of their products to stay greener longer, while using less water and requiring less mowing than other lawns. In these ways, both beat tall fescue. Tall fescue has long been standard for Ventura County lawns, according to Dr. Jim Downer, another University of California Cooperative Extension Farm Advisor based at the university’s Ventura office.

Miniclover wins, partly because planting Zoysia is a lifetime commitment. Many reviewers noted Zoysia’s invasive power, with one reviewer remarking that Zoysia is “not just invasive – it’s downright hostile.” At least Miniclover can be easily replaced with a more drought-tolerant landscape when a homeowner no longer feels a need to pit their lawn against the biggest heavyweight in the conservation contest – our changing climate. 

Of course, a grass variety cannot really claim a green trophy; other landscapes conserve more, and watering schedules required to start a new lawn are untenable during a drought. Nevertheless, after reducing lawn size and planning to allow a lawn to go brown, or “California gold,” during the hottest months of the year, some people, in some parts of the county, will continue to have lawns. During seasonal change or a break in watering restrictions, some may consider Miniclover or varieties such as Kikuyu grass, Buffalograss or Bermudagrass.


And now, the championship round — a five-way battle.

Bucket vs. Shower Flower vs. recirculating pump vs. tankless water heater vs. grey water

Diligent conservationists watch, exasperated, as water runs down their shower drain while they wait for the flow to warm. Among methods for capturing warm-up water, a $45 Shower Flower beats a bucket. Using an upside-down umbrella (the flower) to channel warm-up water into an easy-to-carry container with a spout solves the bulkiness and pouring problems of a bucket. 

A recirculating, or “comfort” pump, however, requires far less work. Some water purveyors offer discounts on these pumps, which send hot water through existing water lines to parts of the house far from the water heater. If used with a timer, running only when needed, not much energy is needed for pumping. 

Tankless systems are a step up in luxury and convenience, but several steps up in cost, heating water with a short blast of energy upon demand. A whole-house tankless system eliminates the need for a water heater, perhaps the bulkiest item a household is likely to discard. Getting rid of your tank also means no longer heating water just to store it for occasional use. 

Complementing any of these systems, or standing triumphantly alone as a solution, greywater capture systems win the conservation contest. A “showers to flowers” system, following the rules and guidelines of local building officials to avoid hazards, bypasses the sewer by using not just warm-up water, but an entire shower’s water, to replace use of potable water in a landscape.

Of course, all conservation measures matter, so even if your preferred option did not win one of these imaginary matchups, stick with it, and keep conserving.

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David Goldstein, an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, may be reached at 805-658-4312 or david.goldstein@vetura.org