As climate change brings higher temperatures and extended drought – look no further than California, for example – Missoula officials are working hard to design parks and public spaces that use water much more efficiently.

A variety of techniques and gadgets – from raising lawn mower blades during the height of summer to sensors that measure evapo-transpiration rates – are being employed to make every drop count.

The Missoula Parks and Recreation Department has been implementing a number of reforms to the way the city’s nearly 400 acres of developed, irrigated public parks are designed and managed with water conservation in mind, including installing drip irrigation systems and replacing thirsty plants with drought-resistant and native grasses, bushes and trees.

Parks that were recently completed – such as Silver Park – and parks in the planning phase – such as Jeannette Rankin Park near the University of Montana and the new Fort Missoula Regional Park – will have different species of plants that require less watering and ultra-efficient “smart” irrigation systems that use real-time data to measure climatic conditions and replenish only water that is actually needed.

Chris Boza, the city’s urban forester, said there are certain species of plants that are adapted to areas with less rainfall, and he is trying to get as many of those in the ground as possible. In the past, drought-resistant native species were often overlooked.

“Generally, what we’re looking at in terms of water savings is planting plants that are appropriate to the site, and we are in the process of developing lists,” Boza explained. “We’ve developed a short list, it probably has about 40 different species on it that we’ve put together for the folks who are adopting the traffic circles around town. Shrubs, ground cover, perennials that are lower water use. Some of them are native and some of them are suitable to our area. In terms of parks in general, what we look at is the type of turf that’s being utilized, the amount of turf that’s being installed.”

High-use sports fields require an aggressive, thirsty mix – mostly Kentucky bluegrass – so that they don't get destroyed by soccer and baseball cleats, but neighborhood parks can use alternative turfs that are more drought-tolerant.

“Just as things have changed in other industries, there have been many, many new cultivars that have come out in turf grass for instance that need less water,” Boza explained. “In California or the Southwest, they have developed tall turf-type fescues that need less water. So if you were going to put in spirea for instance, that’s a shrub that needs a fair amount of water. You might not put that in, you might go to a different cultivar of sagebrush that might need less water. You do your research and you select plants that need less water.”

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Jeannette Rankin Park will look much different than parks that were designed in the 1970s. There will be large amounts of native rough grasses, or what the city has termed a “dry grass meadow.”

“When you get into the center areas of Rankin Park there will be drought-tolerant plants planted in the center,” Boza said. “There will be some turf that will be there, but it will be limited. You look to see where you really truly need turf and you put the turf there.”

Fort Missoula Regional Park, which is still in the design phase, also will have coarse grasses and drought-tolerant shade trees like Bur oaks, which are native to prairie areas in the U.S.

Boza said people shouldn’t worry about parks not having the same pleasant look and feel.

“You’re still baking a cake, you’re just using different ingredients,” he explained.

The city now has eight “smart” irrigation clocks installed in parks, and they will be used at Fort Missoula as well.

Most of the city’s irrigation system is from the 1960s and '70s, and since then designs have become far more efficient.

“Retrofitting and upgrading our irrigation systems to improve water and energy conservation is a top priority and an ongoing project for Parks and Recreation,” said department communications specialist Becky Goodrich.

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If you’ve paid close attention, you may have also noticed that even public landscaping beds in city rights of way have been undergoing some pretty big changes lately.

“Where we can use more drought-tolerant plantings, we’re doing that,” said parks services and systems manager David Selvage. “We’re using more natives as well. The palette of plants that we can utilize is not really broad because it has to make it through winter, but we can use a lot of materials that people in the past wouldn’t have used necessarily. That’s part of our selection process. Some places we’re still going to make really pretty. They need to look a certain way.”

Using alternative species of grass also helps the city save money, Selvage said.

There are no reliable estimates of how much water the city uses on parks because there are nearly 100 different meters, not to mention wells, and consumption rates would include public restrooms.

“We try to water at night compared to daytime use,” he added. “Where we can’t do that is typically the result of the irrigation system itself not being efficient enough to accomplish it in that short amount of time.”

Crews have been going around to landscaped islands and pulling out bushes and installing new grasses and shrubs that are more drought tolerant, but it’s slow progress.

“We are understaffed for all the facilities we need to maintain,” Selvage said. “When it comes to irrigation systems, they can become quite expensive. When it comes to changing sod types, we are nowhere near doing any of that. That requires a complete renovation of facilities. We have a lot of really old irrigation systems.”

The city has a turf management plan, and Selvage said a priority is placed on replacing municipal water with well water.

“Our last choice is to be connected to a municipal supply,” he said. “We want to use what’s in the ground so it doesn’t have to be treated.”

When well water isn’t a viable option, especially for smaller landscaped areas, Selvage said the city is trying to retrofit drip irrigation systems.

“There are several variations of drip irrigation systems,” he said. “There’s no sense in watering everything that doesn’t need it. A lot of the things we’re doing is maintaining the right balance with keeping water costs low and putting enough water down so people can play in the park and be safe."

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