Sometimes the biggest innovations develop from the most natural solutions. Returning to a native landscape at Lake Powell gave guests a more authentic environment and also saved millions of gallons of water.

Each year, thousands of people visit Lake Powell to rent houseboats and enjoy its serene waters, but what many of those visitors may not know is that Lake Powell primarily serves another purpose: it’s the water reservoir for the millions of people living along the Colorado River. And that’s what makes our role as park concessionaire so unique.

Operating hotels, restaurants, houseboats, retail outlets, and more in a desert climate influences how we utilize the precious resource of water. However instead of fighting the desert heat, we decided to work with the climate.

It’s that kind of innovative thinking that would ultimately save millions of gallons of water in one year.

To tackle the challenge of water conservation in a desert environment, we considered a few factors. First, from a facilities management standpoint, supplying water to a remote, desert location is a complicated endeavor. In doing an assessment, we discovered that much of the water within our operations was being used to maintain the landscape around our facilities. Basically, we were watering grass in a dry environment where much of the water would evaporate before it ever reached the root of the plant. And second, we knew the drought plaguing the west coast would naturally lower the lake’s water levels.

To start tackling both of those challenges we took a look at the data and brainstormed solutions that would limit our utility usage, therefore conserving water for the reservoir. Soon afterwards, we approached the National Park Service with an idea that was more effective than we ever could have imagined: the Lake Powell Xeriscaping Project.

At its most basic level, xeriscaping is the replacement of non-native plants and soil with indigenous vegetation and terrain. For Lake Powell this meant replacing green grass with gravel, tulips with flowering cacti, and shrubs with sage bushes. In addition, we exchanged sprinkler systems for a system of individual drip lines that directly water the root of each plant.

There are seven Principles of Xeriscaping (Pronounced ‘zeer-i-skey-ping’)1:
  1. Water Conservation: The primary goal of xeriscaping is to limit water usage and utilize natural precipitation to the best of our ability.
  2. Soil Improvement: We reintroduced soil that’s more ideal for a desert climate—soil that drains water more quickly, while simultaneously storing it.
  3. Limited Turf: Rather than using grass that’s not native to the area, we employed rockscaping and planted vegetation sparingly.
  4. Native Plants: Certain plants are better built for dry atmospheres, like cacti and primrose, so we partnered with local horticulturalists to plant flora that thrive in the desert environment.
  5. Mulch: Laying down mulch around planted areas helped us organically maintain the soil and trap any moisture.  
  6. Irrigation: The most unique and effective aspect of this project was our irrigation system. We routed drip tubes underneath all the rock, with spouts located directly above the roots of each plant. This allowed us to apply water directly to the root, limiting the amount we had to use and reducing loss from evaporation.
  7. Maintenance: The irrigation system runs on a timer to tightly control the amount of water that each plant gets, so not a single drop goes to waste.

We made sure to limit our changes to the landscapes around our operations and locations. It was important to us that we didn’t alter the aesthetic of the natural landscape within the park and we worked hand-in-hand with the National Park Service to ensure this was the case.

“Today, the vast majority of our campus out here is xeriscape, percentage wise probably about 60 or 70 percent has all been returned to native vegetation, with the removal of lawn grass, etc.”

- Bridger Christiansen, Director of Compliance, Lake Powell

After we had completed the project, we took a look back at the numbers. Within one year, we saved more than 38 million gallons of water, even though we had an increase in visitors during that same time. There was a dramatic decrease in the utility usage within our own operations, allowing us to invest the savings back into visitor programs. And for the people visiting the park, the natural terrain that now surrounds our facilities only makes the experience that much more authentic.

We look forward to continuing to implement innovative solutions to enhance the guest experience. Taking care of little details that make a big difference. And thinking big picture to deliver more environmentally sustainable solutions, where we can, in the spaces we operate.

Lake Powell Xeriscaping

This article was informed by Aramark employees: Bridger Christiansen, Director of Compliance at Lake Powell National Park, and Allison Gosselin, Director of Sustainability. Published on October 19, 2016