Coping with legislation in the western states

Public Works Director, Michael J. Mischel and the Maxicom Central Irrigation Control Committee receiving the Irrigation Association National Energy and Water Conservation Award at the 2008 Irrigation Association Convention.
Photo courtesy of Irrigation Association.

In much of the western part of the country, a decreasing or limited water supply has been a concern for many years. The problem has become so bad that states like California are writing legislation that will strictly limit water use, including in landscaping. Installing smart irrigation systems is one way to use water wisely. In fact, California has pending legislation that will require improved water monitoring for landscaping.

Most systems measure evapotranspiration (ET). The U.S. Geological Survey describes evapotranspiration as, “the water lost to the atmosphere from the ground surface, evaporation from the capillary fringe of the groundwater table and the transpiration of groundwater by plants whose roots tap the capillary fringe of the groundwater table.”

The city of Palmdale, located 60 miles north of Los Angeles, has been using smart irrigation systems since 1995.

“We’re in a desert region,” explains Connie Brown, senior engineer landscape technician, “but we also have over 500 acres of parks and 250 acres of bike trails, as well as median strips that we care for. A lot of our landscape is spread out, so it helps to have a smart system in place.”

Palmdale has its own water ordinance, which requires landscapers to form water budgets and makes the community’s decision to use smart irrigation even more relevant.

The city of Palmdale uses Rain Bird Maxicom Central Irrigation Control system and supplemental Rain Bird ET Manager controllers. There are two weather stations in use and the city is in the process of installing a third. “It’s made a world of difference,” Brown says. “We can now monitor water usage and track problems. For example, the systems senses when a water main breaks.”

Smart irrigation is only part of the solution toward using less water for landscaping in Palmdale. Brown adds that the need for water budgeting has increased xeriscaping and put restrictions on where new turf can be installed (active play areas only, says Brown).

“Through the use of SMART technology and vigorous maintenance, the city is proud to have conserved 72,054,750 gallons of water between 2007 and 2008, even though more than 25 new areas were accepted into the city landscape maintenance district during that time,” says Brown.

Also, to encourage the use of smart irrigation throughout the community, Palmdale provides the ET data from the weather station located at Domenic Massari Park free to the citizens of the community through a daily broadcast system. “The citizens who wish to receive this data use one of the two controllers that receives and manages that data through the Weather Reach Water Management System,” Brown explains.

In Healdsburg, Calif., a community 100 miles north of San Francisco, water has been in critical supply for years, and today, the flow of water from the Russian River to Healdsburg is regulated. A voluntary water reduction from the citizens was called for.

In 2006, the parks department began discussions with Hydropoint to install a smart irrigation system. “It was a plus for us to use a local company,” says Matt Thompson, parks superintendent.

Right now there are six installation sites for the weather stations used on 80 acres of parklands. Thompson would like to use smart irrigation on more of his landscaping, but, like many other communities in California and around the country, the efforts to better conserve water is up against budget cuts. “We don’t have the capital right now to change out more systems,” Thompson says.

One reason having the smart irrigation in Healdsburg is so valuable is because of the temperature extremes in the area. “Healdsburg is in California wine country. It’s warm in the daytime and cool in the evening. It isn’t unusual to have a 50-degree flux in temperature,” Thompson says. The weather stations used for the smart irrigation system get their readings from satellites and are able to recognize the shifts in the weather. “It saves us a lot in labor to not have to go out and control the irrigation sites in person,” Thompson says.

Healdsburg is also using a smart controller to help with gardening education. The community is trying to promote gardening, Thompson says, and is offering classes to residents on growing vegetables and plant selection. “We have a demonstration garden, and we use a smart controller for it,” Thompson says. “We also need to get more up to speed with plant selection. The right plant in the right location will help with water conservation.”

While California’s water problems are well known, few would think that water conservation would be an issue in Washington. After all, the Pacific Northwest is known for its rainfall.

However, Jason Bond, irrigation specialist for Issaquah, Wash., says that his area has had two drought years over the past four years. The irrigation season in Issaquah normally lasts 20 weeks, from May through September. “I’m the only irrigation guy here, and we have between 50 and 60 systems,” Bond says. “Having smart irrigation is a time saver.”

Issaquah uses a Calsense system with a weather-based ET gauge. “We’re in our second year of using it, and we’re still fine-tuning the system,” Bond says. Right now, approximately 25 acres of landscaping are being irrigated with the smart system, but the goal is to eventually have all of the parklands under this type of irrigation. Sports turf is the largest water user in Issaquah, and the timing of the sprinklers and the amount of water needed were taken into consideration when planning where to locate the ET stations.

“It’s expensive, so we’re trying to carefully pick areas, but we’re also seeing significant water savings,” Bond says.

Bond does have one piece of advice for those thinking about installing a smart irrigation system. “A lot of people think of the systems as a plug and play, but you have to provide a lot of information for them to work properly. You need to know your precipitation,” he says.

The author is a freelance writer who writes for a variety of trade and B2B publications, covering topics from sustainable living to construction and landscaping/lawn care. She resides in State College, Pa.