Since 2009 Haile Plantation, a 1,700-acre development with about 100 individual neighborhoods west of Interstate 75 in Gainesville, has been using reclaimed water, or highly treated wastewater, to irrigate common areas such as parks and playgrounds.
“Using reclaimed water to irrigate our common areas really makes sense,” said Eric Corcoran, the liaison program director of Management Specialists Services, the management company for the Haile Plantation Association. “It’s really come a long way.”
Reclaimed water makes sense for a variety of reasons. It costs less than other water resources, reduces fertilizer use and reduces disposal into waterways, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District.
But it seems that the Haile association is doing things differently from other homeowner associations in Florida.
Alexa Lamm, an assistant professor in UF’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communication, said the landscaping regulations of many homeowners associations aren’t water-saving. Homeowners associations typically regulate landscaping practices, she said, and sometimes they don’t allow more eco-friendly types of plants and grass.
Getting residents to replace their plants and grass would end up costing too much, so associations don’t change their policies, she said.
Additionally, a recent study by the UF Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences found that 24 percent of Floridians surveyed said they viewed water conservation as important but don’t take additional steps to conserve water.
Lamm, however, said people might not take steps to conserve water because of barriers placed by homeowners associations.
“They can’t just rip out their landscape and replace it with low-watering plants,” Lamm said. “Sometimes the homeowner doesn’t have control of how much water their lawn requires. Even if you feel water conservation is really important, you may not be able to act on it.
Haile’s homeowner’s association, however, is working to encourage sustainable practices. Among other things, it is running a test program to use soil sensors instead of rain sensors in sprinkler systems, Corcoran said.
Corcoran explained that soil sensors, while about $170 more expensive than rain sensors, are more effective because they can sense with certainty when the soil needs water.
Rain sensors automatically shut off sprinkler systems when it rains, but if the sensor is placed in the shade, it may dry out more slowly and not turn on the system again when it’s needed. Likewise, if the sensor is placed in the sun and dries out too quickly, sprinklers may come on when they’re not needed, he said.
Haile Plantation Association is currently testing soil sensors in a few of its common areas. The association will know for sure in the fall whether it is conserving enough water to justify the extra expense.
Corcoran said he was sent to a training session on Florida-friendly practices at IFAS and used the information to make Haile Plantation more sustainable. IFAS’s Center for Landscape Conservation and Ecology offers programs for both homeowners and professionals on the best landscaping practices.
The Florida-Friendly Landscaping Program is run by UF/IFAS and encourages Floridians to use low-maintenance plants and environmentally sustainable practices. The program has guides for homeowners and homeowners associations, such as a guide to plant selection and guidelines on mowing lawns, insect and disease control, fertilization and irrigation.
But while the Haile Plantation Association is using sustainable practices in its common areas, it doesn’t have authority over how residents water their personal lawns.
“There are some things the association does in terms of information and what they put out in the newsletter,” Corcoran said.
The association also attempts to conserve individual water usage through a process residents use to make personal landscaping changes. The board considers whether residents are using Florida-Friendly practices in their changes before approval, he said.
Lisa Lundy, an associate professor in UF’s Department of Agricultural Education and Communication, said people who are not allowed to change their landscaping practices could still conserve water at home.
People can take shorter showers, turn off sinks while brushing their teeth and washing dishes, or use car washes with recycled water instead of washing their cars at home, she said.
“They can also just serve as advocates in their homeowners associations,” Lundy said.
While some homeowners associations are strict about landscaping practices, Lundy said she believes many are actually becoming more conservation-oriented.
“Homeowners associations can be a barrier, but I think in a lot of cases they’re leading the efforts to conserve water,” she said.