When the pandemic hit, my year-long experiment in living local got a lot more local than I expected. My focus became hyperlocal — the backyard I share with 57 neighbors in my community.
A few neighbors decided to improve our two acres of green space. Among us, we had visions ranging from modest upgrades to a food forest to a full-on xeriscape. However, we got focused on the irrigation system when we discovered it was in bad shape.
Initially, we found 16 broken sprinkler heads each leaking 13 gallons a minute when the system was on, which was about an hour a week. That’s a lot of waste. Despite knowing next to nothing about irrigation systems, we fixed these leaks. However, the repairs didn’t give us a sense of security. In fact, it was alarming. These were only the most obvious leaks. We knew there were likely many more problems.
Unfortunately, we were right. We soon discovered a collection of major problems — we were overwatering, we watered at night making it difficult to spot leaks, we had double the number of sprinklers we needed, and there were countless underground leaks.
The Work Begins
Step-by-step we made changes to stop the massive waste of water and money happening right under our noses. The most dramatic change we made was adjusting the irrigation schedule. We simply watered less and did it in the morning when our neighbors could spot leaks.
This had an immediate positive impact on both water use and resident participation in the community. After we sent an email to neighbors about the changes, a slow, but steady stream of reports about leaks began. That was much-needed help pinpointing problems.
The second big step was eliminating redundant sprinklers and fixing underground leaks. This was my focus. By working a few hours a week for five months, we fixed another 30 leaks and reduce the number of sprinkler heads by about 20%. For a while, a few of us kept a standing work party every Saturday at 9 am. That helped us keep our momentum.
To make these fixes, we acquired the know-how and tools step-by-step starting from nearly scratch. At first, we had no idea how anything worked from the control system to sprinkler heads. By reading up about our system, consulting neighbors, trial and error, online research, and speaking to suppliers we gained enough knowledge to do around 75% of the maintenance ourselves. This was basic stuff like replacing sprinkler heads, but our vendor charges around $100 an hour for it.
Along the way, we noticed that all too often vendor work was shoddy. They used the wrong parts, simply added to already too complicated solutions, and buried debris from repairs in work areas. Plus, their quotes always included more work than we needed. We quickly got in the habit of reviewing vendor quotes line item by line item, which paid off in dramatically lower maintenance bills.
After nine months of work, the results are in:
- We reduced year-over-year water consumption by 62% for the two month period after we made the bulk of the changes. We’re on track to use 500,000 gallons less water than in 2019.
- Through lower water usage, a renegotiated grounds maintenance contract, and more DIY repairs, we saved our community around $25,000 this year. We’re going to invest this money in more climate-appropriate plantings and higher-efficiency irrigation to create even more benefit.
- While these numbers are worth celebrating, the community building that we’ve done along the way is equally if not more important. My neighbors are more involved than ever. This is key to continued progress. There’s still a ton of work to do.
What did I learn from all of this? I learned many things, especially about irrigation systems. But the biggest and most surprising lesson I learned is about government.
Ronald Reagan famously said, “Government isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.” His solution was to shrink the government.
I learned the opposite lesson — that if you’re not happy with your government, then the solution is to get more involved thereby making the government bigger. Or rather, it’s not the size of government that matters, it’s the size of our participation.
I started this journey with the mindset of a consumer. I didn’t like that our community board raised dues every year. I grumbled. I wondered why.
Now I know why. It’s because I didn’t get off my ass and help. My and others’ lack of participation is a key part of the problem.
Co-managing a community’s resources demands a lot of commitment, time, attention, skill, and labor. Money is needed too, but that’s just the ante. If you don’t get personally involved and outsource the work to professionals, then you’ll probably end up paying too much for shitty results like we did.
By experiencing this on the scale of our 57 household community, I got the strong sense that this is what’s happened in the United States. We’ve outsourced governing our resources to professionals, and now we don’t like that they’ve arranged things to benefit themselves.
There’s plenty of blame to go around, but a lot lay with us. Americans only spend about 15 minutes a day on public life. Perhaps we’ve gotten what we deserve? In any case, I now strongly believe that’s far, far too little participation in public life to get good results.
Luckily the solution is simple — we must dramatically increase our participation in public life, from neighborhood associations to national politics and everything in between.
Nero fiddled while Rome burned, but we risk letting the world burn while watching Netflix if we don’t get deeply, seriously involved in management of our life-giving local resources. There’s no amount of money that can make up for lack of care. The world needs us.