Making the Most of Every Drop

Maintenance Manager

John Whitaker

Coober Pedy, Australia

John Whitaker

As the maintenance manager of the only turf oval in Australia’s driest town, John Whittaker relishes the challenge of keeping the grass green through the strategic use of recycled sewage and runoff from Coober Pedy’s 2000 residents.

The OZ Minerals oval is a mix of drought-tolerant saltwater couch and wintergreen couch grass that remains dormant until ‘Lizard Day’ – the time that Coober Pedy’s bearded dragon lizards emerge from hibernation, marking the end of Winter and transition to Spring.

Coober Pedy is about halfway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, with an annual rainfall of 175mm per year and temperatures that range from 50oC in summer to 14oC in winter.

The oval and a flourishing community orchard containing olive trees, pistachios, lemons, oranges, mandarins, apples and pears are watered on timers from six 20,000L tanks.

“The recycled water is gravity-fed to circulate under the oval through a series of perforated pipes laid in a grid, six metres apart and 600mm below the surface, which keeps the turf green without any moving parts,” John explained.

“A lot of the trees are 15-20 years old so if the oval looks like it’s suffering, we’ll cut back the water to them without causing stress. We’re very careful not to waste a drop!”

How to Make the Most of Every Drop

Tip 1: Use recycled or runoff water

Recycled water is waste water that is reclaimed and treated to be re-used. In Australia recycled water is classified for its quality and range of uses from Class A to Class D. Class A can be used on lawns and is not subject to water restrictions. Make sure you know the regulations for using recycled or grey water in your local area. Some Councils require the use of coloured taps to signify recycled water, and the display of safety signage. Recycled water also has some extra nutrients and salinity, so monitor your lawn for adverse effects. Look for other water supplies that you can use on the lawn e.g. rainwater runoff from roofs into storage tanks, and consider using mulch and gravel on garden paths to slow down stormwater so that it soaks into the lawn.

Tip 2: Consider the watering system for your lawn

If you’re planting a new lawn, consider installing underground irrigation or pop-up sprinklers. There are many different types of smart watering systems and some have controllers that allow you to schedule watering using your smartphone. Drip irrigation can be monitored by an automatic central timer for convenience and accuracy. Most home gardeners on town water will have adequate water flow rates, but you will need to assess the water pressure if you’re trying to set up large areas under irrigation or you need accurate measurements for automated watering systems.

Tip 3: Choose the right turf for your climate

Different lawn types require different amounts of water. Select a variety that is adapted to your local conditions. You can grow lawn from seed or choose instant turf which comes in sections of grass that are easy to install and fast to establish. Varieties of turf include buffalo grass, a low-maintenance, non-invasive, drought-tolerant variety; kikuyu, a fast-growing variety that requires more maintenance but stays healthier and produces a more vivid colour in harsh conditions; and couch grass, a low-growing lawn which can cope with full sun and is tolerant of foot traffic. Within these types there are varieties suited to a range of seasonal conditions.

Tip 4: Water strategically

Avoid the heat of the day – water your lawn early in the morning and in the evening. Don’t water at night as this can encourage fungal issues. A new lawn needs more watering during its first summer to enable it to establish a deep enough root system to achieve drought tolerance. Once it’s established, water for longer time periods, less frequently. Watering your lawn 2-3 times a week for an hour each time is much better than watering your lawn every day for only 15 minutes. Check how long it takes water to soak in by sticking a screwdriver into the lawn every 15 minutes that you’re watering. It needs to soak to around 15cm, so once that’s achieved, you know how long you’ll need to water your lawn in the future. If you have dry spots in the lawn, apply a wetting agent.

Tip 5: Maximise mowing height, control pests, apply fertiliser

Raise the mowing height for your lawn. By leaving the lawn higher, it encourages a deeper root system and the longer leaf also creates better shading of the soil, which helps to reduce evaporation. Check for lawn pests as their damage to the roots can appear as a dry lawn. Control weeds which compete with the lawn for moisture and apply a fertiliser – healthy lawns are less likely to suffer from moisture stress.

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