Since 2000, Las Vegas-based Green Planet Landscaping has been operating with 10 to 12 work crews, projects lined up for at least two months out and never experienced a slowdown during winter. In September, however, owner and president, Damon Lang, began seeing business drop off and clients who already were scheduled for service cancel their orders. Consequently, Green Planet Landscaping has downsized their work force and now is operating only one month out.
“We’ve done well, but the stock market crashing has affected our business,” said Lang, whose company does primarily residential, but also commercial landscaping and hardscaping design and installation. “It’s a really difficult time. It’s getting harder and harder.”
Green Planet’s experience is typical, as the halt of new homes construction, rising materials costs and a faltering economy have pummeled Nevada’s entire landscaping industry.
“I do not believe there is one business that hasn’t been affected,” Lang added.
Further, while coping with economic conditions, landscapers are also contending with the state’s fluctuating water supplies, related use restrictions and resulting materials and design trends.
Plants and Dollars
Demand for initial landscaping design and installation for residential construction is scarce, as the building and sales of new homes is minimal. As a result, almost all of the residential landscaping services being requested are renovations.
For the past two years, Sara Anderson, the owner of Reno-based Outdoor Environments of Nevada, a residential and commercial landscaping design and installation firm, has done more renovations than new installations, she said. However, not all residential landscapers execute renovations, as they are more labor intensive and require a greater knowledge of irrigation than new installations, Anderson said.
Many new homeowners whose associations require them to install landscaping within a specific time frame are putting in the minimum allowed, rather than full enhancements, simply to obtain board approval without having to spend a lot, Lang said.
Requests for commercial landscaping have also decreased, in large part because of the difficulty in obtaining loans to cover the costs, said Dawn Donovan, planning and design manager of Moana Nursery’s Landscape Division, which provides residential and commercial estimating, design and installation. This Reno-based company, whose landscaping business has slowed, has noticed a shift in its project makeup. Whereas in the past, commercial landscaping comprised most of their business, today the company is performing more residential projects than commercial.
The current lack of consumer confidence means that, in general, consumers and businesses alike are holding on to their money right now.
“The basic attitude of the consumer is that they want to spend less money or do not want to spend any at all,” said Anderson.
Anderson reports she too has had several customers who had plans to obtain landscaping services that have backed out or are waiting until their financial situations improve. The lost work Anderson has experienced prompts her to say that her company is, “Getting by but not doing great.”
In a bid to spend less, but still complete the job, some consumers are hiring unlicensed contractors for landscaping services and assuming the associated risks, including fines. For instance, Anderson has designed yards for customers who then have an unlicensed person install it, she said.
“There are a lot more unlicensed people out there trying to get the work now,” she added. “I think we’re probably going to see more of it.”
Meanwhile, licensed landscapers’ overhead has grown as materials and fuel costs have continued to rise. In the first eight months of 2008, gas prices jumped so much, it was hard for his company to cover the cost, said Lang.
“The prices of some materials, such as irrigation parts, have increased as much as 40 percent in the last two years,” Anderson said. “Primarily because of them having to be shipped which means fuel prices greatly increased the cost of shipping.”
Landscaping firms have gone out of business in both Southern and Northern Nevada, while others have filed for bankruptcy. Some have cut their hours or have closed temporarily with the hopes of eventually reopening and several have laid off employees.
Many companies have lowered their prices to remain competitive, but some are underbidding so severely to survive that other firms are struggling to remain competitive.
“The commercial bids are cutthroat because everybody wants them,” Anderson said.
Green Planet has begun offering its existing clients additional maintenance services, such as resealing pavers and cleaning water features. Outdoor Environments is taking on more commercial projects, despite their profit margin being less than that with residential work, Anderson said.
This is good news for consumers. Landscapers are far less busy and charging lower rates than in years past, it is an ideal time to get work done.
“If you are considering landscaping work, you could find good prices right now and get more attention,” Lang said.
Every Drop Counts
Because Nevada depends on mountain snowpack—from the Rockies for Southern Nevada and the Sierras for Northern Nevada—for its water, supply levels fluctuate. The state’s southern region is in its ninth year of drought and is currently in a “Drought Alert” stage, meaning Lake Mead’s water levels are critically low. Lake Mead, which provides 90 percent of the region’s water, is down to only 50 feet above the higher of Southern Nevada Water Authority’s (SNWA) two intakes, called Intake No. 1. Intakes are pumps that draw in water from the source for treatment and ultimate distribution. Southern Nevada would likely be elevated to a “Drought Critical” status, the most serious, should Lake Mead’s water level drop below Intake No. 1.
“It’s not looking very good. These warm temperatures are very disturbing,” said Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of SNWA, a cooperative agency that manages the region’s water resources and provides for the Las Vegas Valley’s future residential and commercial water needs.
SNWA could lose both of its Lake Mead intakes if the region experiences average snowpack runoff over the next six years that is 69 percent or less of normal, Mulroy added. Runoff has been 67 percent of normal for the past nine years. Consequently, a third intake is currently under construction at Lake Mead, but because of the project’s level of construction difficulty (greater than Massachusetts’ Big Dig tunnel), it will not be finished until 2013.
The water authority’s drought planning efforts have included leasing water, contracting with other water agencies to transfer water for a price from the Muddy and the Virgin Rivers to the Las Vegas Valley, if necessary, and storing water in Arizona and California.
“We have enough backup to get through losing the two intakes, but obviously we would have to go into some intermediate form of conservation,” Mulroy said.
Drought Planning Efforts
In 2002, SNWA initiated its Water Smart Landscapes Program, which offers rebates to customers who replace their grass with xeriscape. Reimbursement rates are $1.50-per-square-foot for the first 5,000 square feet and $1-per-square-foot after 5,000 square feet, with a maximum annual rebate of $300,000. Within two years of the program launch, the water amount being taken from Lake Mead dropped to 200,000 from 325,000 acre feet.
Also successful is the agency’s Water Efficient Technologies Program, which offers financial incentives to commercial and multi-family property owners who install any water-efficient technologies. A few years ago, The Mirage Hotel and Casino installed a new cooling tower for its air conditioning system, which eliminates appoximately 6 million gallons of water usage a year.
Other water conservation efforts include coupons for using a water-smart car wash, training landscaping contractors in water efficiency, getting restaurants to provide customers with water only when asked, having hotel/motel properties give guests the option of only having their used linens laundered daily (as opposed to all linens) and currently developing a program to certify new homes as water-smart.
“It’s a jigsaw puzzle of a bunch of little programs that, when they all come together, make a big difference,” Mulroy said.
Northern Nevada Not Immune
Northern Nevada is at the start of a drought cycle, but the current water supply is adequate.
“If we have a banner year in snow and get enough water off the snowpack to get us through June, we’ll see no difference in the water supply,” said Mark Foree, interim general manager of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, the water utility for Washoe County in Northern Nevada. “If that’s not the case, we’ll go to our drought supplies.”
TMWA continues ongoing drought planning and water conservation efforts, including using reclaimed water for commercial use, piping treated surface water down into the Truckee Meadows’ existing 10-plus wells to increase the water resource and improve the water quality, assigned-day watering, public education and annual residential Landscape Awards which reward citizens for responsible water consumption. TMWA has also been rehabilitating the water system infrastructure—replacing mains and upgrading pipes—and retrofitting existing residences with meters. The 11,000 customers who have meters are being billed a flat rate, but will be switched to metered billing this year, Foree said.
A new contract, the Truckee River Operating Agreement (TROA), signed last September, will allow TMWA to triple its drought water supply to nearly 60,000 acre feet in exchange for allowing the federal government to use some of the utility’s water rights.
It is impossible to predict where the water supply levels in both Southern and Northern Nevada will be in five years, as they are entirely dependent on future weather, both Mulroy and Foree said.
Water use restrictions and growing conservation conscientiousness have caused commercial and residential landscaping to evolve towards encompassing more drought-tolerant plants and water-efficient materials.
Interest in xeriscapes, designed specifically for drought-susceptible areas, continues to grow throughout Nevada as people want to reduce maintenance, water usage and costs. Xeriscaping techniques include grouping plants with similar water needs together, using indigenous plants (agaves, palo verdes, mesquites and African sumacs work well in Southern Nevada), mulch and reducing lawn grass areas.
“You can be creative with how you layout xeriscapes, using multicolored rocks, for example, to make it pop more than just a standard yard,” said Lang. “I find more and more people are into it.”
The initial costs for xeriscaping are higher than traditional landscaping. However, that difference is quickly recouped in saved watering costs.
Experts do not believe grass is becoming obsolete in Northern Nevada, because in small amounts it is useful, as it creates movement and enhances a landscape, Anderson said. It also serves as functional space for playing and entertaining and is cheaper to install than many other plant materials.
In Southern Nevada, however, grass seems to be on the way out. Fewer customers are requesting it, Lang said. People who do want grass typically do so for their small children or dogs to play on.
What is in and replacing grass is synthetic lawn turf, for both commercial and residential use. This polyethylene product looks and feels like grass, is durable and requires little maintenance, Lang said. It is available in different grass types—fescue, bluegrass, rye and more—colors, blade widths and height, or a combination thereof.
Also in Nevada’s southern region, shallow reflection ponds have replaced large, deep ponds, streams and other features utilizing a lot of water, which were desirable two to three years ago. These ponds allow homeowners to have water features, but also meet SNWA’s 25-square-foot surface area requirement that mandates residential water features and ponds have a surface area that is smaller than 25 square feet.
Designs and Technology
Commercial landscaping designs tend to involve more uniformity and repetition of materials, creating curb appeal but not a homey feel, Donovan said. They also tend to be less elaborate than many residential designs, to minimize costs.
Some landscape designs are now incorporating fire prevention strategies. For example, Anderson ensures properties have defensible space (between the structure and landscaping) and when possible, avoids using highly flammable plants, such as junipers and bitterbrush, she said.
When it comes to mapping out a design, some landscapers use pencil and paper, whereas others employ computer software programs. Lang uses a virtual reality program that affords clients a realistic visual idea of the finished landscape. It allows him to show the client how different materials and colors will appear.
“[With the software] we can actually build the house, put in property walls, do moundings, contour and grading within the yard and bring the client inside their home to look at the views outside,” Lang said. “Customers love it. They’re blown away by it.”
Irrigation parts, such as valves and lawn heads, are becoming increasingly water efficient. In addition, a major shift is taking place toward the use of smart irrigation controllers in both commercial and residential environments. Also called irrigation clocks, these devices automatically adjust water schedules based on recent and forecasted weather conditions (SNWA offers an up-to-$200 rebate for upgrading to a smart controller).
In Northern Nevada, more homeowners whose property lies near an irrigation ditch are using the canal water to irrigate their landscaping. It requires building a holding pond and pumping water from the pond to the landscape.
“It’s very expensive to install it, but once it’s installed, it’s really water efficient,” Anderson said.
Landscape professionals are optimistic the economy will turn around, commercial and residential building will resume and their own businesses will pick back up, but they cannot predict when. They do expect the ensuing months to remain slow, however.
“I think profit margins are going to narrow substantially,” said Anderson. “I think we’re going to see a lot more people go out of business, truthfully.”