From Simple Sprinklers to Smart Irrigation

May 1, 2015, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Modern solutions help parks conserve precious water while maintaining beautiful grounds.Parks and the open spaces that often define them serve as a sort of welcome mat for the surrounding community. The promise of soft, green grass, curated flowers, robust sports fields and well-tended trails beckons residents to their local parks, but these amenities don’t simply care for themselves. A great deal of time, labor and, perhaps most importantly, water, are necessary to maintain their beauty and utility.

As the world continues to grapple with the implications of climate change one fact is becoming clearer by the minute: water is a precious and ever-more-scarce resource. One need look no further than California, where record levels of drought have led this year to the first mandatory water restrictions in the state’s history. Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order mandates that by next February, Californians reduce urban water use by 25 percent compared with 2013 levels — the drought has been ongoing since 2012.

While water scarcity in other parts of the country is perhaps not as dire as in the Golden State, the subject has caught the attention of landscape maintenance workers and parks employees looking to reduce water consumption. According to HydroPoint Data Systems, which focuses on developing smart water-management solutions, 58 percent of urban water use goes toward landscape irrigation, including city properties and parks. There are ways to water smarter, from advanced monitoring systems to creative irrigation and turf management.

Smart Irrigation

“Smart irrigation generally speaks to providing exactly the amount of water plants need, when they need it and where they need it,” says Dana Lonn, PE, managing director at the Center for Advanced Turf Technology for The Toro Company. “We also must apply water at the right time in cooperation with varying weather conditions, including anticipating future rainfall events, to prevent wasting or overwatering. Smart irrigation is about supplying the water that plants will use in the future, and not about replacing what they have used in the past.”

To do this, agencies need to bring their irrigation and turf management systems into the 21st century. Companies like Petaluma, California-based HydroPoint use technology and detailed site evaluations to target water where and when it’s needed most. “Successful smart water management is not a magical process — it requires a solution that ensures the right data gets to the right person at the right time,” says HydroPoint CEO Chris Spain. 

To achieve truly smart irrigation solutions, HydroPoint offers its clients site evaluations, irrigation system efficiency audits, leak detection, weather analytics, installation or upgrade of current systems and ongoing support and training to make sure operations are going smoothly. Its WeatherTRAK system, which provides precise watering scheduling, high-resolution weather data, web-based oversight, real-time reports and alerts and training, is endorsed by the Environmental Protection Association (EPA) and has been deployed in municipalities across the country. WeatherTRAK’s patented technologies, cloud-computing options and detailed analytics combine with onsite hardware, onsite/offsite flow sensors, wireless communication networks and smartphone apps, reducing water consumption between 16 and 59 percent for its clients. “We approach smart water management from every angle to ensure our sites are successful day after day,” says Spain. 

Lonn’s recommendations regarding intelligent use of weather data and high-tech sensors align with systems like WeatherTRAK. “Onsite weather stations, local weather measurements obtained over the Internet, or in-ground moisture sensors are all technologies that can be applied to reduce or eliminate the guesswork in establishing how much water should be applied to the site to have the optimum plant performance,” he says. 

Such multipronged approaches to water monitoring, paired with conscientious turf choices, are what today’s park and recreation agencies need to consider if water conservation is to be a priority. “Choosing the correct variety of plant material and then choosing a state-of-the-art irrigation system that utilizes sensing technology assures you are meeting the requirements that you outlined as a part of the planning process,” Lonn affirms. 

Turf Management

It’s important to consider geography, anticipated use and weather patterns when selecting appropriate turf. “In order for turf to be sustainable, it must be the right choice for the application,” Lonn says. “You need to look at the use of the site and the expectations of the community. It is then important to do some research to find out what variety is best suited for the climate and the anticipated use. The land grant college in your area is an excellent source of information. Also, the National Turf Evaluation Program (NTEP) has information on turf grass variety trials that is distributed across the country. [Agencies] can look to those trials and find the turf varieties that perform best. Once the variety is chosen and the site is prepared, a maintenance plan should be chosen with state-of-the-art technology. Irrigation systems that involve central control and moisture sensor technology allow you to make sure that you are only using water when it is necessary to assure the health of the plants.”

Developing a Sustainability Plan

Once the correct plantings and maintenance protocols are established, agencies should formulate a long-term strategy to ensure as much efficiency as possible in water conservation. “Make sure that you understand the requirements of the site,” Lonn says. “What is it going to be used for? How intensely will it be maintained? Research what varieties of plants are the best choice for the intended use and the climate, then employ the right people to [ensure water is applied] efficiently and scheduled properly.”

Taking proactive steps in water use and turf-management strategies will only become more important as time wears on, and agencies would do well to plan ahead. “Water is the oil of the 21st century,” says Lonn. “Water is in short supply on a worldwide basis, so it is important that all of us use our precious water wisely. When we use water wisely, we not only conserve the resource so that it can be used for other purposes, but we save money as well.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.